A diagnosis of ovarian cancer taught this single woman that her relationship status didn’t mean she had to face the challenges that lay ahead alone.
I had a good life. It was filled with an abundance of amazing people, travel and adventure and meaningful work in a field that I loved with really great colleagues. I had an eclectic group of friends with whom I camped, went to movies, plays and concerts, went out to dinner and happy hour, took road trips and paddled down rivers.
As much as I enjoyed my various volunteer roles, planning my next trip or outdoor escapade, and being on the go all the time, I didn’t really appreciate how incredible my life truly was until it was almost taken away.
Because I was perpetually single, I felt as if something major was missing, and I made that my primary focus. The absence of something I had never had was more important than all that I did have. Even though the idea of a white picket fence, traditional marriage and kids had never appealed to me, I had bought into society’s ideas about what I was supposed to want, and started to believe that something must be wrong with me because I didn’t have a boyfriend, much less a husband.
When I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer at age 36, I was CEO of a start-up company, I lived alone, and I was terrible at asking for help. My first thought was, “who is going to take care of me?” Because the company I ran had only five employees, I knew taking a leave of absence was probably out of the question, so I began to feel overwhelmed about how I would manage cancer treatment, running a company and all the stuff I had been juggling before my diagnosis.
Though I had always technically been “alone,” I suddenly felt more alone than I ever had in my life. I started to realize that I had immersed myself in being busy in order to ignore how much I longed for partnership. When I couldn’t plan a big group camping trip for Memorial Day weekend because I had just had major surgery, I had a lot of time alone with my thoughts, and I didn’t love it.
I was forced to contemplate my mortality, come to terms with the fact that I probably wouldn’t ever have kids, and began to wonder if the rest of my life would be filled with doctors and hospitals, and if my life would even last that long.
Now, almost nine years later, I can look back in total gratitude for all that cancer has taught me, for the negative thought patterns, the emotional dead-ends and the limiting self-image that facing a serious illness helped me overcome. Even though I had two recurrences, thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket treatment costs, worry, stress and fear, I wouldn’t change what happened. Why? Because cancer was like rocket fuel for my spiritual development and personal transformation.
A quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things illustrates this perfectly: “The greater the crisis, it seems, the swifter the evolution. All transformation appears to be motivated by desperation and emergency.”
In retrospect, I can see that I chose circumstances that offered me the greatest potential for growth, including cancer, being single and struggling with money. Although I once thought those circumstances were some kind of punishment, now I see they were opportunities for transformation. So what did I transform?
My Relationship to “Single”
Did you know that 51 percent of the U.S population is now single — that for perhaps the first time in history, we outnumber married people? One-third of us also live alone. We aren’t sad, lonely, desperate people waiting for partnership in order for our lives to begin. We’re out living it, loving our single lives, and finding great connections among others like us. I still desire partnership, mind you, but not because I need some guy to complete me. I’m already complete, thank you very much!
My Love Affair with Independence
Oh how I valued my strength and independence. “Need help putting that luggage in the overhead bin, little lady?”
“No thanks big strapping dude. I can totally do it myself.”
And of course, I could. But why should I? A very kind gentleman was offering me help. Why did I need to deflect it? To play my feminist card? I think we’re beyond that. Like it or not, we live in a society, and that society becomes more disconnected every day. We no longer need the village to raise our children. Modern society gives us all we need to do it ourselves, but what are we missing in the process? I embrace interdependence now.
My Fear of Being Needy
Wow, was this a big one for me because I got my sense of self-worth by providing for others. I was super uncomfortable when I was the one who had needs. The scariest words for me to hear were: “What can I do for you?” Cancer gave me permission to ask for help when nothing else probably could have (including when I broke my ankle several years ago). I began to see giving and receiving as a cycle. When I didn’t receive well, I didn’t give someone else the opportunity to give. Who was I to deny that pleasure to someone when I enjoyed it so much myself?
My Sense That I was Alone
Getting sick connected me to the oneness of the universe. It helped me see the illusion of “alone.” There is no such thing! We sometimes like to pretend that no one cares about us and wallow in our loneliness for a little while, but we are never really alone. We are totally connected to every other living thing on this planet. I couldn’t ignore that anymore. Even total strangers reached out to me in grocery stores when they saw my headscarf (the sisterhood of cancer), friends of friends sent me cards and gifts and the cancer community welcomed me with open arms into their fold. None of us are ever alone!
You don’t have to get cancer to have your own transformation. Never let a good crisis go to waste. Anytime you have a serious life challenge (and we all have them) look for the lessons. I promise they are there, but sometimes you need a good shovel to unearth them since they often come disguised as an extra-large sh*t sandwich. In my book, Being Single, With Cancer: A Solo Survivor’s Guide to Life, Love, Health & Happiness, I share the questions, exercises, resources, quotes and stories that helped me transform not only my relationship to cancer, but to myself and my life as well.
Copyright © Tracy Maxwell / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC