“If you ask me what I came into this world to do,
I will tell you: I came to live out loud.”
Anyone who knows me would probably tell you I am outgoing, honest, easy to talk to and likely to say EXACTLY what is on my mind no matter how politically incorrect it may be. I have heard “tell us what you REALLY think, Robyn” more times than I can count. I have had the Zola quote posted by my bed for years and have always believed that it was my spiritual responsibility to not “hide my light under a bushel” so to speak. And then I got cancer.
Being the only girl working the male dominated hardgoods department at a ski shop was a source of pride for me, and guaranteed me immediate recognition and, dare I say, popularity within the local ski community. As my mastectomy surgery date came closer, the owners of my workplace decided they wanted to help with the impending medical bills by hosting an auction. Would I be okay with that? I was amazed and touched that they cared so much. An email was sent to all the ski related sales reps in the Northwestern territory asking if they wanted to donate something because “Robyn has breast cancer”. Now, there are a ton of reps in the Seattle area, most of whom I had a personal connection with, and donations POURED in. As they stopped by the store to make sure I was okay I realized I had not thought this through very well in terms of my own privacy. More than one person had a complete melt-down in disbelief and sorrow over my diagnosis while talking to me. I was completely overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and their personal emotions and of course I felt like I should answer their heartfelt questions. Shortly afterwards an email was sent inviting people to the event. 2,000+ people were the recipients of that email. AND it was posted on the website. AND the staff, in the interest of being helpful in getting donations, told EVERY customer. So the days leading up to my surgery, when I was most insecure and afraid, I spent every day talking to people I didn’t really know about my diagnosis and impending treatment.
I took two weeks off work and returned a week before the benefit. My customers came in to see how I was doing. People sought me out to talk to me. More than a hundred people came to the event and bought auction items or donated cash. On the sales floor eyes kept sliding from my face to my chest and back up again as people tried to process what they knew I had been through and the fact that I didn’t look any different. I was so self conscious and afraid of looking weird…I wore big puffy down vests so you couldn’t see my chest and must have checked myself in the bathroom a million times a day to make sure that nothing had slid out of place. I was exhausted, took multiple naps in the lunchroom every day to just make it through the day and cried all the way home every day. I was traumatized by my sudden diagnosis and treatment – which I had not even begun to process – yet had to talk to people I barely knew about what I was going through.
Because of having the reputation for being open, honest and outspoken people asked me many questions ranging from the benign “what type of cancer do you have?” and “Are you going to lose your hair?” to the more personal “So are you just flat on that side?”, “When are you getting a boob job?” “What do you stuff your bra with so that it looks like you have two?” and on to the one we all wanted an answer to “Why you?”. Each time I had to talk about cancer when I was supposed to be doing my job, I took a deep breath and gave them an honest answer. There were times when the questions were flat out rude and a brutal invasion of privacy but more often they were just annoying in their repetition. I thought if I spent my life being approachable, now was not the time to retreat. I saw this as a “teachable moment” for us all. If people felt they could ask me a question they deserved the best answer I could give them in that moment. Who knew if they were going to have a mother, sister, or lover with breast cancer. Maybe the fact that they had spoken to me would make a difference some time down the road. I think the fact that I did not fit the image of breast cancer patient – I was the wrong age with no risk factors and was an athlete – really shifted people’s perspective about this disease and made them realize that it could affect any of us. At least that is my hope, and that is why I kept talking even when I just wanted to hide.
Gandhi said “Be the change that you want to see”. Being “cancer girl” was incredibly challenging as I was having enough difficulty dealing with my own diagnosis in addition to educating others or helping them cope with it too. I could have stopped at any point – I could have deflected the questions, not been so much of an open book, or shut down the conversations. But what do any of us stand to learn from closing the doors on education, caring and understanding? A cure for a disease, compassion for people in crisis, acceptance of those that are different, or an end to the terrible acts of violence going on in the world begin with each one of us taking a moment to be a voice for those who do not have one. Using our personal experience, passion and ability to speak up about the things we believe in is the only way we are going to create a better tomorrow. It is our responsibility as children of the universe/God to stand up for the things that matter to us. No one is going to change the world except us.
Nearly immediately following the end of my treatment I became a local and national Reach to Recovery volunteer with the American Cancer Society. I talk to women of similar age and breast cancer diagnosis about what is REALLY going on with them – one survivor to another. Recently I started publishing my writing about my struggles around body image and what I was doing to cope with the stress, fear and emotions that come up in being a survivor. Many people tell me that even though my experience may not be the same as their own, reading about my challenges created greater understanding and the ability to look within at ways that similar issues have affected them.
I am glad that my own experience can serve my community in helping them live a more full and aware life. I feel that I am making this disease work FOR me, instead of wallowing in all the ways that it changed my life without my permission. I hope I can help other sister survivors feel less alone and to see their own inner strength and beauty. Each day I talk to people about cancer I grow more committed to the work of sharing my successes and struggles so that people will be educated and those dealing with similar challenges will know they do not fight this battle alone. Each time I write about my own thoughts and struggles I hope that someone who needs the push, or the hug, feels that coming from me and is able to take the next step towards being their best self – cancer survivor or not. I live out loud not just for me, or for other survivors, but also so that others will know that they are supported in speaking up, for living fully, and for deeply committing to changing the world into a healthy, compassionate and beautiful place.
Fate, God, or whatever you want to call it, took me – a person completely committed to living out loud and gave me the ability to be a friendly, open voice to others who are struggling in private. I have become an advocate for the women who are also survivors and do not have the support or resources that I have had. I am the person they can ask personal questions of knowing that I have been there and done that. (And gotten the t-shirt!) I have put a young, athletic face on a disease that primary strikes older women, so that awareness in both genders and all ages has substantially increased. I have been a light for people who may not have had cancer but have faced similar emotional challenges in order for them to know that there is a way out of the darkness. I hope I have also been a role model to my kids about how to live a genuine life – to not believe that you are alone in your struggles, to not be ashamed of the challenges you face and to be watching for the opportunities to be of service when we least may want, or expect them. They are the next wave – it is my responsibility to teach them how to “be the change”.
Cancer handed me a lot of opportunities to “walk the talk”. Many times I wanted to become a hermit, but as I remind other people they are not alone, so I am reminded that I am not either. I am nourished as much as I give, maybe more so, by the sisterhood this disease welcomed me into. I am changing the world with each word I write, each conversation I have, with each hug I give. By utilizing our gifts,we heal not only our planet and our human family also ourselves. I challenge all of you that read this to look deep within at what beliefs you hold passionate and think about how you can bring this to the surface in order to create a better world. Can you bring your challenges to the table to let your experience show someone that they are not alone? Can you use your resources to help another persons’ path become smoother? Can you be a light for someone else? Can you speak up for those that cannot? Can you give a hug to someone that is in need? If you are not fully you – if you are not living out loud – who will?
(Thank you to Michael Franti and Spearhead and all the other social activist artists for being such an inspiration in showing us how to use the tools we have to change the world. NAMASTE)