In 2009, a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 30 changed everything for me.
In an instant, I was transported from my corporate life as a successful headhunter in the technology industry to a foreign world of chemotherapy and surgeries. I anticipated that treatment would be difficult, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional aftermath. In 2011, with my final surgery behind me, I found myself grappling with feelings of isolation, depression, survivor guilt, and anger.
I couldn’t stay in the dark place where cancer had deposited me, but I didn’t feel like a sitting in a traditional support group circle would help me heal cancer’s emotional scars or give me the tools to reimagine my future. It was in my search for inspiration that I signed up for a volunteer trip to Africa.
For six weeks, I volunteered at an underfunded daycare in the Townships of Cape Town and then traveled to Victoria Falls, which had been a long term dream of mine. These experiences helped me see that struggle is universal and that even if I couldn’t go back to who I was before cancer, reinvention was possible. With my Business Degree (majoring in Entrepreneurship) from Royal Roads University and the experiences gained from five years of building a network as a professional headhunter, I saw an opportunity to turn my newfound passion into an organization that provides a fresh forum for addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of cancer.
A six-month volunteer trip around the world in 2012 helped me better understand the landscape of international volunteering and how A Fresh Chapter would fit into it. In February 2013, a group of 12 men and women joined me for a two-week pilot program in New Delhi, India. Based on the success of this pilot, we continue to run this program in India and have since expanded to South Africa, Peru, and the United States. With 7 successful programs on 4 continents and more than 100 Alumni, I am excited to see the ripple impact continue to build through the more than 4,000 volunteer hours in dozens of community projects we have served.
To read some of the early entries to the blog and see how this all came to be, here’s a bit more on the birth of a dream.
More On The Birth Of A Dream
Maybe, like me, you once stood in the corner at a New Year’s Eve party you wished you had skipped. As you watched your friends laugh at a shared joke, you clutched your champagne glass with one hand and with the other, you used the corner of a Santa Claus cocktail napkin to catch a tear before it escaped and ruined your perfectly made-up (fake it until you make it) face.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my share of dark days and I looked for the lever to the secret trap door that would drop me down through the layers of sadness and into the place where the future finally had more light than dark.
But, before my story makes you want to reach for a dull switchblade, here is a simple but powerful quote that has helped me through some of my toughest days:
“Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery. ~ Bertrand Russell
Since early 2011, I have become a cultivator of hope. Let’s be clear. Hope doesn’t make the misery go away or instantly transport you into a mythical utopia where unicorns frolic and rainbows ignite the sky. But, for me, hope is the willingness to grieve what you’ve lost while choosing to believe in new possibilities for your life. It’s like holding onto a thick rope while walking through a dark cave. You can’t yet see anything, but you know that if you keep walking and keep holding the rope, you will eventually emerge out of the cold dampness of the cave and into the warmth of the afternoon sun.
In January of 2011, I wondered if I would ever see the sun again. A relationship I’d hope would last had just ended, well-meaning friends and family kept asking me if I was “excited” about my upcoming final reconstruction surgery (post breast cancer induced double mastectomy), my best friend told me she was worried that cancer had turned me into a negative and sad person, and I was terrified of telling my boss that I didn’t want to go back to my Professional Recruiting career. I felt lost and alone.
Searching for inspiration, I decided to quit my six-figure job and felt my first spark of possibility ignite when I set off in the spring of 2011 on a six-week volunteer program to Cape Town with Cross-Cultural Solutions. My experience working with children at an underfunded daycare in the Township of Langa changed me forever. As soon as I arrived, I Crashed Into Love and in all of my interactions, I had constant reminders that We Can Only Be Human Together
After my time in Africa, I came back to Vancouver, packed up my belongings, and gave notice on my apartment. I didn’t have an exact plan, but I started with a trip around North America to talk about my Big Hairy Audacious Dream to create a foundation to help other people expand their stories beyond cancer.
Then, I took an even bigger leap of faith and set off on an Adventure of Hope. This six-month, five-continent trip laid the groundwork for the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation by giving me the chance to fully review seven different international volunteer organizations.
We are so much more than our struggles. I am not defined by my cancer. I am a traveler, writer, photographer, audacious dreamer, global volunteer, and most recently, someone with a passion for redefining possibility in the lives of people impacted by cancer.
If you want to see how this blog came to be, below is a (still unanswered letter) I wrote to Oprah in the summer of 2010 which ultimately became my first blog entry.
The Letter To Oprah That Started It All
You don’t know me yet, but I hope that one day you will. I am 31, single, and live in Vancouver, Canada. On October 27, 2009, life as I knew it ended. Perhaps the universe was trying to send me a message to slow down and question whether the stresses of my life were serving me. It worked. My diagnosis of breast cancer brought my career, my quest to meet the perfect man, and my obsession with slimming my hips to an abrupt halt.
The last six months have included a lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, four rounds of chemotherapy, and a bi-lateral mastectomy and those are just the bright, shiny clinical words. I have also contemplated issues surrounding my future fertility, stared at my bald head in the mirror, and experienced what feels like worst PMS of my life as well as the inability to remember even my own name (courtesy of the chemo drugs). The next six months involve procedures to transform my now flat chest back into a perkier version of its old self.
My story may not be unique, but I believe my journey could inspire many. My dream is to write a book. I believe that impacting people in a positive way is what I was put on this earth to do. I believe that the recent events in my life are opening a door to who I was always meant to become. This isn’t just a book about cancer. This is a book about surviving hardship, but not identifying yourself as the victim…a book about using humour to laugh your way through terror…a book about the search for God or a deeper meaning to life, but not a religious book …a book about finding love in the strangest of places, but learning that someone else’s love can’t save you…a book about realizing that underneath all of the fear and shame we cloak ourselves in, we (even with all of our imperfections) really are enough.
I thought it might be fitting to ask the universe (and you) to help me. I am not an English major and have never written anything except emails and the odd high school essay. I would be grateful if by telling my story I might meet people that can help me navigate this new chapter in my life.