I normally start October off by changing my Facebook profile picture to a pink survivor ribbon and celebrating my breast cancer survivorship, but this October was different. I slept on October 1st because I had spent 48 hours at Gulf Coast Medical Center when hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida three days before. I was absolutely exhausted when I arrived home after the storm. The world was turned upside down. Then it occurred to me how similar being diagnosed with cancer and being affected by severe hurricanes are.
We recognize October as breast cancer awareness month, and we raise money for research, wear our pink ribbons and encourage women to get mammograms. We know that it is more effective when we detect and treat cancer early, so we recommend preventative screening. Some people follow the guidelines, and others are cavalier.
“I’m too young.” “There’s no family history.” “It’s too uncomfortable.”
Some people feel that we are screening too much and women with very early cancer are being treated too aggressively. Hurricanes, it turns out, are treated the same. Some people take warnings very seriously and prepare a hurricane kit or evacuate to safer ground. Other people will “ride out the storm” because they’ve been through other storms that didn’t cause damage or believe the storm will go elsewhere. Some think that meteorologists are crying wolf and are overdramatizing the situation. These situations are similar because most mammograms will be negative, and most hurricanes won’t be extremely strong, but it only takes one to devastate lives.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, a huge team rallies around you. Oncologists, surgeons, nurses, social workers, friends, family, and other patients come to help you. When a hurricane strikes, shortly afterward, line workers from the electrical company, first responders and medical personnel, volunteers with food and water, and disaster recovery teams come to help put the pieces back together. We are grateful for their help and hope they will hurry to get things “back to normal.” The problem with that thought is that back to normal means the way things were before the storm, but nothing will ever be the same again.
During treatment for cancer, you will experience losses, and you will have victories. I lost my hair during chemo, and many people had no idea. I shaved my head after my second treatment because I was “molting “all over the place. I wore a wig that very closely matched my real hair. When my hair finally started growing back eight months later, it was a win, but my hair was different. It came in almost black and was very curly. I told my hairdresser that I look like a French poodle. I have never had curly hair and didn’t know how to deal with it. I eventually learned, and the curls relaxed some, but when the humidity gets high or I get caught in the rain (like before Ian, on my way to the hospital), those wild curls reemerge, and I am reminded of my cancer. I will have to see my oncologist yearly for the rest of my life and have diagnostic mammograms or MRIs yearly. Every time I go in, I always know that the results might not be negative, and my battle will start again.
The survivors of hurricane Ian will never be the same again either. Every storm that forms near us will cause concern. Many people have lost almost everything, but they may find a picture or keepsake in the rubble to give them hope. They will be better prepared next time.
Unfortunately, for some, there won’t be a next time. So far, over 100 people have died as a result of hurricane Ian, and over 42,000 women and 500 men die from breast cancer in the United States every year. Those people won’t see another beautiful Florida sunrise or have to tolerate Florida without air conditioning in the summer when the power fails.
When you realize that the one thing that cannot be replaced is life, it changes you forever. You realize that things are just things. You realize that the discomfort of living without air-conditioning is difficult but not unbearable. You find a strength that you didn’t know you had. You are more grateful for the things that matter, like spending time with friends and family. You learn that MREs and hotdogs taste really good when you haven’t had anything to eat that didn’t come out of a can for a couple of days.
I’ve learned lessons that have made my life more meaningful. I celebrate my birthday every day. Life is too precious to only merit 1/365th of a year. Someday, we will all have a “last” birthday, and we never know when it will be, so make each day better than the last. Appreciate those signs of aging like gray hairs and wrinkles. Some people will never grow old enough to acquire them. The most important lesson I’ve learned was from my daughter. Whenever one of us leaves the other, we always say “I love you” when we go. Life is so fragile that you don’t ever want your last words to a loved one to be words of anger. Say “I love you” often and mean it.
We will always face storms, but we are strong and resilient. We will get through this, and even though things will never be the same as they were before, our lives will go on, and we will adapt. We can overcome this when we are surrounded by love and care for others. In the end, these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. We have faith that those who have been sent to help us will be able to help. We hope that tomorrow will be better than today. We know that love is the most important aspect of life, and as long as we have love, we have everything that we need.
Linda Munroe is a nurse practitioner.
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