Turning Negative's Into Positive's ...Making Cancer The BEST Thing That Happened To Me

It was December 12th, 2016, 2:02 pm, when I heard the words I never thought I would hear; ‘YOU. HAVE. CANCER.’  It was called, triple negative breast cancer [https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/trip_neg], a very aggressive cancer, known to be related to the BRCA 1 gene (I didn’t know I had the gene until my diagnosis), and occurs in about 10-20% of diagnosed breast cancers (more likely to affect younger people, African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, and Hispanics) [https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/triple-negative-breast-cancer].

My doctor assumed it was stage 2, and that it was “very treatable”. However, I needed more tests, and I needed to start treatment ASAP because of how aggressive it was.  On December 18th, after pet scans and MRI’s, I was diagnosed with stage 4 triple negative breast cancer...hmmmm...happy holidays to me?!  

I can’t tell you how CRAZY this was for me (and my husband of only a year and a half).  It actually felt like I was in a bad dream and I couldn’t wake myself up no matter how hard I pinched (yes, I was pinching!).  I mean, I was a healthy, 47 year old yoga teacher/singer/songwriter, who was NEVER sick (other than a cold once in a while). Even more confusing, I had all of my mammograms, doctor check-ups, and yearly tests up to date… so it didn’t make any sense?!

I was someone who believed in manifestation. I had never worried about getting sick, or even saw myself getting sick… EVER.  So, the universe as I knew it became a universe I did NOT understand. Even worse, a universe that seemed unkind and unfair…I felt abandoned and punished by God in some way, tricked by the universe and my beliefs.  

Side note...I had almost died when I was born, but other than that it was the first time I actually thought I was going to die, the first time I realized I REALLY had no control over anything, and the first time I realized how much I did NOT want to die.  However, I had NO idea what was going to happen, and so for those first 2 weeks, I assumed I was going to be another sad story of a young woman dying of cancer, leaving her newlywed husband, her 3 siblings, friends, AND parents, to deal with the sadness for the rest of their lives. I felt so bad for everyone, let alone me who was the one dying.  Thank god this only lasted for 2 weeks, where I saw the world as cruel, where I was a victim, and that my life was being taken away from me before I got to really live it.

BUT, the good thing is, I’m not writing this story from heaven (although that would be really cool!), so rest assure, there IS a happy ending, and a journey that taught me many valuable lessons I hope to share with anyone who wants to listen :)  

As I previously stated, the first 2 weeks post diagnosis were the hardest because I had no idea how to pick a doctor/oncologist.  I was interviewing many doctors, and every doctor was saying something different.  ‘Do chemo first’, ‘do surgery first’, ‘do chemo every week’, ‘do chemo every other week’, ‘do chemo every 3rd week’… you get the picture!  And I’m sure there are so many people out there that have gone through this same situation, and know how scary it is!  But the lesson I learned in this beginning process… go with the doctor you truly trust enough to be willing to put your life in their hands… and then trust 100%! The energy used in worrying about their decisions later is energy you need to fight your battle. 

The last doctor appointment I had was with a very well known oncologist at UCLA.  I remember being in his office feeling at ease right away.  He seemed so sure of his treatment and protocols… and for the first time, I believed in what he was saying… he made sense.  He was also coming from a place of ‘let’s try to use the least amount of chemo as possible to save your heart from potential problems in the future’, and I loved that he was thinking about my future as well as saving my life (btw, every other doctor had told me I was crazy for considering his approach).  

In addition, he asked me about my last two years, when I was trying to have a baby desperately with my husband, doing three rounds of IVF treatments and months and months of hormone shots, all which had failed.  He said that if I had gotten pregnant, the pregnancy would have killed me, making my cancer spread everywhere, and it would have been too late to reverse it.  WOW.  WOW.  WOW.  In that moment, I realized that the universe actually saved my life through my failed attempts, as opposed to punishing me. I remember the chills I had throughout my entire body, that maybe the universe wasn’t my enemy?!  Maybe the universe was my friend, my best friend, and this was all happening for some reason I had yet to understand? 

And so it was, in his office, I transformed from victim into warrior within 45 minutes.  I realized in his office that I felt compelled to figure out how to raise money for his team of researchers at UCLA, otherwise known as the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation [https://cancer.ucla.edu].  It was in his office I decided that cancer was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me (and my husband), instead of the worst thing. And it was in his office I believed I had stage 4 cancer for a reason, a good reason, and I was determined to figure it out.

 So, after committing to my team of doctors at UCLA, I decided to embrace what was happening to me.  It was very natural, not forced, because I knew I didn’t want to be miserable for the next two years.  And worse case scenario, if I didn’t make it… then for sure I didn’t want to live the last years of my life in misery, victimhood, or depression. I had to find a way to see my situation as an experience or journey…one I could enjoy, one that had purpose, and one that would bring meaning.  And, more than acceptance, I had to find a way to love what I was about to go through. 

The biggest lesson I learned was the importance of gratitude and appreciation for all that I had…even appreciation for cancer!  I had to LOVE cancer in order to heal it, and so I started focusing on the positives.  I appreciated my doctors and how medicine has come so far.  Ten years ago, if I was diagnosed with any kind of stage 4 cancer, I would have had NO chance on life whatsoever. I was grateful for chemo and radiation and all the surgeries I was about to undertake, because all of these things were hopefully going to save my life!

I became even more grateful for my family and friends.  Everyone was coming together to help show support, to visit me in the hospital, to send food randomly, even send gifts to show I was being prayed for and thought about.  It filled me up seeing how much love there was around me, where before, I guess I just took it for granted.  

In addition, I became grateful that my husband did NOT have major career obligations at the time, because he was available to take care of me and be there for me every step of the way. Before cancer I was always complaining about this fact, worrying about money and about our future, but WOW, here  was the universe creating the very best situation for me, allowing us to grow closer, and revealing how devoted my husband was to me! 

Losing my hair was a tough one to embrace, but again, I had no choice, so I surrendered to it, choosing to look at it as if I was getting a chance to be bald, I was getting the chance to be free of ‘bad hair days’.  Also, I told myself that my hair would grow back better than before, so losing was a good thing!  I made it fun by getting a lot of cheap wigs, different colors and different styles, always surprising people with how I was going to show up. And I fell in love with my hats and beanies, keeping my head warm and feeling like a cool rock and roller.  And now, 2 years post chemo and ALL my hair back, I’m here to say that it IS much better than before, thicker, healthier, and with a little wave that I never had…thank you chemo!

I leaned into every positive I could come up with… even getting a handicap placard to make my parking easier, getting my husband to do whatever I needed because I was tired ;), and taking advantage of the fact that napping was necessary and ‘allowed’. I wasn’t being lazy or critical of myself, I was simply honoring my body, learning how to listen and not push it…interesting how if you honor where you are, you move through it a little easier?!   

In sum, I believe it was my positive perspective of how I wanted to see my situation that wrote my positive ending, revealing how influential we are in creating the stories we wish to live out.  And the lessons I learned, from how to take better care of myself, how to better love myself, how to receive and accept love, and how powerful love is in the healing process…well, I believe this was a huge part of my recovery, and a very necessary lesson, where I may not have learned it if I wasn’t looking.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how many positive’s I got from cancer, but I’ll cut to the chase…I went from stage 4 in January of 2017, to cancer free by the end of April 2017, shocking all of my doctors.  And, sticking to the entire protocol, I had a double mastectomy, six weeks of radiation, and three reconstructive surgeries, all recommended to ‘prevent’ the cancer from coming back.   

Chemo was a definite PERK in my story. But, every month that I went in for my check ups, my doctor was SHOCKED about the speed that my tumor was shrinking…in fact, he couldn’t believe it!  To me, that meant chemo wasn’t the only factor making my tumors shrink. I truly believe my body/mind/spirit healed itself from the inside out (with the help from the universe of course!).  The ‘negative’ cancer cells were realizing they were ‘not wanted’ anymore, getting overpowered by the ‘positive-happy’ cells, and choosing to leave me just as fast as they had grown. 

The last positive to mention is the fact that I had triple negative cancer as opposed to a hormone related cancer…here’s why…when I was figuring out a name for my company, I wanted it to be related to my story in some way…and there it was, ‘gifted’ to me through the cancer, ‘triple negative’… what would be the opposite of triple negative?  ZERO NEGATIVE…it was perfect!  And what did I learn?  That LOVE and POSITIVITY are key ingredients in getting through all of our life challenges, especially cancer!  So with the mission to spread this message AND raise money for cancer research at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation, the Love Tote was designed [www.ShopZeroNegative.com].

I just want to end saying I believe that it’s so important to embrace every challenge in our lives.  Our challenges become our biggest teachers as long as we see them as such.  Questioning the universe was necessary for me to get to a place of understanding, just as cancer was necessary for me to get to a place of gratitude and appreciation.  And, as much as I DON’T want to go through it again, I am grateful for the journey and all of the lessons I learned. And if any of these lessons help someone else, and someone else, and then someone else…I mean, really, how can I NOT see my cancer journey as a blessing?!  But don’t get me wrong, sure I’m saying ‘thank you cancer’, but I’m also saying, ‘let’s find a cure ASAP and learn lessons in other ways!'

Jenn Greenhut Tollin

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