My husband discovered The Lump while he was kissing my neck. I shrugged it off as swollen glands, but Gary says, “That’s the moment I knew you had cancer.” The Lump—aka the Mass, aka the Suspicious Mass—turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a virulent blood cancer that had already metastasized to both sides of my neck and chest and later polluted my bone marrow. The prognosis: a 50 pecent chance of survival up to five years. Beyond five years, my odds were “statistically negligible.” I was 32 years old. My kids were 5 and 7.
Chemo destroyed me physically and emotionally. I was bloated with prednisone, hairless as a salamander. Overwhelmed with nausea and too weak to walk, I slept on a bed of towels and blankets on the bathroom floor. Ulcers in my mouth and throat took away my ability to work as a drama teacher and commercial voiceover artist.
Even with insurance, Gary and I were financially wiped out. When we stood before the judge in bankruptcy court, I started babbling about not wanting to leave my husband with two small children in a tar pit of medical debt. Gary touched my elbow and said, “Your honor, we’ll need to start our life over again when my wife gets well.”
Tears stung my eyes. Start a new life? All my energy had been consumed clinging to the old one. But the woman I was BC (before cancer)—the performer, the never-say-no power mommy, the girl with all the time in the world—was gone. The first step in my necessary self-reinvention was honoring and grieving the fact that the person I knew as me had died of cancer.
The 5-Year Plan
I was left wondering: How does one live a full life by some metric other than time? I had to let go of longer and try to make itdeeper. Focused on the best I could realistically hope for, I developed a five-year plan with two non-negotiable goals.
First: Vigilant in word and deed, I would leave a handprint of lovingkindness on my kids—a lasting impression that would give substance to their incomplete memories of me. They might not know where it came from, but it would be part of them, and hopefully, pass on to their children.
Second: I would write one good book and get it published. I knew nothing about publishing, but I’d been a voracious reader and compulsive scribbler all my life. When everything else was gone, writing was the life raft I climbed onto. I retreated into the fictional world of a late-night DJ in 1970s Montana, writing and rewriting, loving the work and loving the self I became while doing it.
My first 70ish queries to agents and editors resulted in my first 70ish rejections, but I didn’t have time for self-doubt or precious etiquette. I just kept hammering away as if the rules didn’t apply to me. And—lo and behold—they didn’t. My first two novels,Crazy for Trying (MacAdam-Cage) andSugarland (Spinsters Ink/Bertelsmann) did well enough to get me an agent. Bald in the Land of Big Hair (HarperCollins), a memoir about my cancer experience, put my name on the bestseller lists for the first time, launched a robust public speaking side gig and opened the door for my unexpected career as a celebrity ghostwriter and memoir guru. Since then, I’ve written a long string of bestsellers and screenplays, collaborating with many extraordinary people.
I’m pretty sure this is the absolute worst way to become an almost-famous writer. But I’ll take it.
Two steps forward, one step back
Cancer taught me to reinvent myself without fear or apology, and I’ve repeated that cycle of epiphany and rebirth many times as my life continues—inexplicably—long past my “sell by” date. I’m currently in year 26 of my five-year plan, not cancer-free, but free in all the ways that matter. I’m still committed to that daily handprint of lovingkindness, and each book I write is that one good book that deserves all my dedication and drive. I believe my long-term survival has been powered by that purpose.
We all process hardship in our own unique way, but we all start with that fundamental big question: How do I live a full life factoring in this new challenge?
Making peace with everything we’ve lost and locating something new to live for—these are daunting tasks. So be gentle with yourself. Try breaking that big question down to two specific goals, one personal and one professional.
Give it a minute. Sometimes hardship kicks down the door, looming so large, it’s hard to see anything else. In that moment, it’s important to remember that hardship exists only in the context of a life. The moment we lose sight of that context, we lose our incentive to survive.
Silver Lining Alert
Even with time and perspective, I struggle with the paradox: This beast who came to kill me somehow taught me how to live. I can’t deny the transformative power of my cancer experience, but I hate it when people refer to cancer—or any tragedy—as “a gift.” The gift is you and the unique raw material you bring to whatever FUBAR situation life has handed you.
This isn’t about a feisty girl who made lemonade out of lemons. It’s human nature: a plot twist jars us from complacency, our “fight or flight” instinct kicks in, a burst of adrenaline powers us past some point of no return, and we change—hopefully for the better.
NYT bestselling author Joni Rodgers lives with her husband multimedia artist Gary Rodgers on the beach in Washington State. Her books are available on www.jonirodgers.com and wherever books are sold.