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From Survivor to Thriver

by Diana Raab

Dedicated to Gloria Gaynor and her song "I Will Survive"

Breast-cancer survivors wear many faces. We might have a public face, and we might have a private face, but whichever one we're wearing, many of us have different ways of incorporating self-care into our lives as a way of healing.

Music has always played a huge role in my life; in fact, I found that during my recovery from a mastectomy and reconstruction, carefully chosen music really helped calm and center me.

I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) at the age of 47. Even though that was nearly 20 years ago, I can still hear certain songs playing over and over in my head. One that truly impacted me was Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." For me, the lyrics became my mantra, even after I was diagnosed five years later with multiple myeloma, a rare form of bone marrow cancer for which there is no cure. Because I've made listening to music, and maintaining the regular spiritual practice of writing, part of my daily routine, I feel that I have not only survived, but thrived.

True recovery and healing also depends on the support of loved ones and trusted medical professionals. My physicians were very caring and kind, and I'll never forget the words my oncologist's words uttered when he first gave me my diagnosis: "If this experience doesn't rivet you, nothing will. You'll never look at life in the same way." He was right. My transformation following my diagnosis affected my physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

My doctor's words continue to echo in my mind. From a physical standpoint, I can acknowledge and accept that my body will never look and feel the same. My daily glances in the mirror are a constant reminder of my breast-cancer journey. I still look lopsided, even though the surgeon told me he tried to make my breasts as even as possible. The hypertropic scar across one breast has never healed properly, and I've developed keloids, raised scars, that make my incisions look bigger than they are. To reconstruct my breasts, the surgeon had to remove part of the latissimus dorsi muscle from my midback, so I also have a large scar there. I've also had my implants replaced twice, because after five years they collapsed. I always thought that the saline felt unnatural, so for the last replacement, I chose silicone, and I'm much happier with the way my breasts feel and look.

In spite of looking a little better when I'm dressed, when I'm unclothed, there's no escaping the fact that I've had breast cancer-I have the scars to prove it. I can hide under my clothing, my covers, or in my closet, but in the shower and during lovemaking, I cannot hide, so I've taught myself to accept my new landscape.

People say that scars give us character, and I've worked hard to convince myself that this is true. I tell myself that the scars don't really matter because the important thing is that I've survived, even though the moment I heard my doctor's words, all I wanted to do was hide. At first, I thought I'd seek alternative treatments, but I decided that I didn't want to take the chance. I wasn't afraid of dying, but I was horrified by the idea of having the part of me that had nursed and nurtured all three of my children mutilated-the part that symbolizes femininity, the part men often glance at before looking into a woman's eyes.

As survivors, we go through many mood changes, but in the end, I believe in the old adage "From all bad comes good." I'm cognizant of the importance of being mindful of life's priorities-loved ones, health, and the need for self-care. I've learned what makes me happy and what is truly important in my life. In addition to daily meditation and listening to healing music, I've come to realize that my writing grounds me, makes me happy, and helps me survive. I also know that I need to surround myself with people who make me feel good about myself and who provide healing energy.

I suppose this is what intuitively happens when you come face-to-face with your own mortality-you try not to allow people into your life who drain you of the vital life force that is essential for your own healing. For me, doing so made me feel that I was shoring up my spirit's natural defense mechanisms.

I'd always been a productive person, but my cancer diagnosis brought with it a new sense of urgency to continue my writing practice and to share my words and passions with the universe. Immediately after my diagnosis and during my healing period, I went into overdrive, busying myself with more projects than I ever imagined. My cancer journals evolved into my second memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey. Throughout the writing process, I made a point of trying to relax and reminding myself not to overdo it. I made sure to meditate and work out every day and get a massage and/or acupuncture, when I was able to fit these forms of healing into my schedule.

I decided to express gratitude for my life and all the things I'd taken for granted, such as my family, friends, home, and the time I was able to spend in nature. Given my lifelong commitment to the care of others (I was trained as a registered nurse), I decided to turn that compassion inward and indulge in more self-care. For years I'd put everyone else's needs first, so it felt good to offer gratitude and kindness to myself.

Of course, when we're diagnosed with something like cancer, the possibility of a recurrence is always in the back of our minds-bur we have no way to predict the future, so we can only do our best and be compassionate to ourselves and others.

In "I Will Survive," Gloria Gaynor sang that it took all the strength she had not to fall apart. As I repeatedly told myself that cancer was no longer welcome in my life anymore, I realized that I would definitely stay alive as long as I continued to love.

Diana Raab, Ph.D., is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and author of eight books, including two memoirs, Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey. She's an advocate of writing for healing and transformation and facilitates workshops around the country, and blogs at several sites. Her most recent book is Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Her website is: www.dianaraab.com. Follow her on Twitter @dianaraab and facebook https://www.facebook.com/DianaRaab.Author.