I am very honored to have been asked to share my story with you today. It's probably not very different from many of your stories, for surviving breast cancer tends to evoke introspection. So mine will simply be a variation on a common theme. Let me begin with a fairly recent "in your face" incident.
I'm a retired teacher. While I was setting up the Lydia Project booth at last May's "Relay for Life," several of my former students recognized me and ran over to say hello. In typical early teen style, one of them shouted, "Ms. Lewis, I thought you were dead!" After recovering from the shock of her statement, I managed a smile and said, "Not today!"
That incident was a glaring reminder that I could have died. I could have died because my focus for several years had been on my mother's declining health and on her subsequent passing. I could have died because I was much too long in a state of denial, knowing that what I felt wasn't normal, but choosing to try to ignore it.
I COULD HAVE died because, judging from the type and size of my tumor, it must have been growing a few years! I could have died because I failed to get annual mammograms. Before my diagnosis, my last one was taken three years prior.
I could have died, but I didn't! I certainly don't advocate neglecting your health as I did, for you may not be as fortunate as I am. I am a two-and-three-quarter-year survivor! Mine is a story of surviving in spite of unfavorable circumstances -- an example of God's grace.
Among my favorite poems is one that was e-mailed me during my illness. Perhaps many of you are familiar with it already. If you are, I beg your indulgence as I share it once more:
by Linda Ellis
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke the following with tears,
But he said what mattered must of all
Was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard,
Are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left,
That can still be rearranged.
If we could just slow down enough
To consider what's true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger,
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we've never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life's actions to rehash,
Would you be proud of things they say
About how you spent your dash?
Those of us who have survived the devastation of cancer's diagnosis, treatment, side effects and recovery must be committed to making that "dash" even more meaningful than it might have been prior to cancer.
We have been given the gift of life! Because of that gift, every day must be a day of gratitude and service. Like many others, I've chosen to include the Lydia Project among my volunteer activities.
A co-worker introduced me to the organization by giving me a Lydia tote as I was preparing for sick leave. I was touched by the support it represented. Later, when I saw other bags in the oncology treatment center, those who carried them immediately became my sisters. A bond was formed not only with the bearers of the bags, but also with the many hearts and hands that provided them.
DURING MY ORDEAL, three of my closest friends lifted me up in daily prayer. They fervently prayed for my recovery. They prayed for me even though they, themselves, were stricken with terminal illnesses. Those dear friends have all passed , but their prayers, their hopes and dreams for me and my recovery are ever-present.
I am indebted to them and to all who loved me and supported me in various ways during my battle with cancer. I am so indebted that I must live every day determined to make my "dash" a testimony of God's love. When much has been given, much is expected. Please join me in celebrating our gift of life by supporting medical science, by serving as models of courage, and by building relationships which affirm and encourage.
(The author is a breast cancer survivor who taught at Warren Road Elementary School in Augusta for 26 years.)