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Change: How Breast Cancer Taught Me to "Live Fearlessly"

February 2024 Vol 10 No 1
Jennifer D. James

Being diagnosed with triple-positive breast cancer at the age of 41 undoubtedly brought me closer to the person I was born to be. My self-evolution began on May 1, 2017, when I heard my doctor say, “They found cancer cells in the tissue.” On that unforgettable afternoon, life as I knew it changed forever. As I ascended to a different plane, one between life and death, I began to evaluate my existence with a different perspective. My life was in need of repair, and hearing those dreadful words fueled an urgency to revive my life—and the dreams—I had set aside.

“I’ll do that someday,” I’d tell myself. Well, someday isn’t soon enough when faced with a life-threatening illness. Someday doesn’t guarantee time. And honestly, now someday feels like an excuse I made up so I wouldn’t have to shift out of a routine that, at the time, made me feel secure, safe, and protected.

I often say, “My cancer diagnosis was a gift.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I never want to repeat that experience again. But 6 years later and still cancer free, there is no doubt that I am a better version of myself because of that disease.

So, what changed? Everything that no longer serves me. I began to make conscious choices of how I should prioritize my life. I now make decisions about my future based on my life’s purpose instead of fear. I trust my instincts to guide me as I listen closely to my internal voice, the one that reminds me of who I truly am and what I actually need.

To this day I repeat the words “live fearlessly” over and over. It has become my own personal mantra. The words motivate me to keep moving forward.

To this day I repeat the words “live fearlessly” over and over. It has become my own personal mantra. The words motivate me to keep moving forward.

When I’d think…I’m nervous to be around so many strangers, I’d counteract the fear by whispering “live fearlessly,” which gave me the courage to walk in, sit down, and engage in a conversation.

I’m scared to release my cancer memoir because it’s so personal. And once again, I’d remind myself to “live fearlessly” as I waited for the final manuscript to upload and then clicked “publish,” which allowed the entire world to read it.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do this. It never mattered what it was, whether I was trying to learn something new, dive into a challenging project, or navigate a difficult conversation, “live fearlessly” gave me the confidence to proceed, and it still does.

Of course, change—especially the inevitable kind—makes us feel uncomfortable. My heart used to race at the thought of change. Let’s be honest, unknowns are scary. Why? Because we’re not sure what will happen. Will the change make us better? Make things worse? How will it affect the people around us? Our finances? What if we fail? What if we make a change and are still unhappy, then what?

But see, change is not bad when we have the choice to perceive the change as something positive.

Even though I didn’t seek change, the tidal wave of a plummeting cancer diagnosis forced change upon me. And when I had hit an all-time low, feeling as if I might drown in the depths of its turbulence, I made the conscious decision to stop resisting it and to accept the chaos instead. It was time to find my way through it. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to hold hands with something terrifying. But when I made the decision to do that, I discovered something brilliant: that the dreadful wave that almost killed me was the same wave that lifted me up and carried me out of my stagnant life. It saved me from the life that I thought was good for me and allowed me to create one that was.

That wave was powerful. All waves are.

That’s when I realized the “act of living” and the “art of living” make up life. The “act of living” includes driving your children to their numerous activities, working long hours for the next paycheck, breathing, sleeping, eating, getting cancer treatments…basically doing the necessary activities to survive in life. Yes, the “act” is important, but the “art of living” is important, too. The “art of living” is why we were born in the first place. It encompasses our passions, talents, and strengths. It’s who we truly are and the legacy we leave behind. It’s that incredible, grateful-to-be-alive joy that comes from living a life that encourages and supports us in our own authenticity.

I encourage you to take the “art” and weave it into the “act.”

Life isn’t easy. As I included in my book, Feisty Righty: A Cancer Survivor’s Journey, my Grandmother Wells always said, “It takes the bad stuff to appreciate the good.” It’s true. Life is made up of highs, lows, and everything in between. But even during the darkest moments—like a triple-positive breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 41 that required chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation—I discovered the beautiful takeaways that have made my life more meaningful.

Living life to the fullest is embracing it all: the incredible highs, the roughest lows, and all of the mediocre moments in between.

Now I see the world—and my role in it—differently. I was fortunate to be granted another chance at life, and I am not wasting a single moment. Every breath counts. Life may be uncontrollable, but I still hold power in the way I choose to perceive situations, how I react, and how I use my energy. Much like the waves that make up life, whether there are cyan skies or storm clouds overhead, there is an opportunity to learn, grow, and become.

Now, that’s a gift in itself.

The ESSAY column in Conquer is devoted to lifting the voices of people touched by cancer.
Read more essays or submit yours.

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