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Living with Cancer: A Message for Survivors

A motivational story about one breast cancer survivor who realized she was never really living before she was diagnosed.

Gayla Ross (here on her Ridley) is more adventurous now.

The morning I awoke with a bad sore throat, I was more annoyed than anything else. A bad sore throat meant maybe flu, which meant a trip to the doctor, which meant time missed at work.

I hated missing work. I was a dental hygienist, not long out of college, and my life basically revolved around my job. I wanted to impress my new employers, and I hoped one day to teach dental hygiene. I worked long hours and went straight home to dinner, TV and bed. Friends asked me to join them on vacations sometimes, but I blew them off. I hadn’t traveled much—hadn’t even been on an airplane. I figured vacations could wait. I was 27. I had my whole life ahead of me.

I sat up in bed and stretched my arms, wrapping them around my chest in the December cold. Wait. What’s that? A small lump seemed to press against my left middle finger, under my arm. I felt at it, and for a moment it went away. No, there it was. Definitely a lump. I frowned. I was too young to have breast cancer. What could it be? I sighed. Better go to the doctor. Time missed at work!

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In the examining room, a physician’s assistant couldn’t even feel the lump, it was so small. Still, to be safe, I asked for an ultrasound. Two weeks later, a radiologist waved an ultrasound paddle across my chest. I waited for him to say, “You have nothing to worry about.” Instead, he frowned, and I realized he was saying words like, “this concerns me” and “might need a biopsy.” I tried to focus. What was he talking about? The room seemed to telescope. “We need to do a mammogram,” the doctor said. “I’ll go prepare the equipment, and someone will bring you when it’s ready.” He walked out, and I was alone.

I grabbed the phone on the examining room wall. Not wanting to worry her, I’d told my mom I’d be Christmas shopping that afternoon—which was true. I’d planned to shop after what I’d assumed would be a quick appointment. I dialed, praying she’d answer. “Mom,” I said when she did. “I’m—I’m at the hospital, the breast care center.” I started crying. “I need you to come down here right now.”

She was there in time to sit with me through the mammogram. She held my hand when the doctor said he definitely needed to do a biopsy—that day, if possible. “I’ll call you with results tomorrow,” he said. He handed me a brochure: “Dealing with a Cancer Diagnosis.” I looked at it, not quite comprehending. Then Mom and I walked out to the parking lot.

It was a clear, cold, late afternoon, already winter dark. I stared at the city lights, the black sky. For some reason, I suddenly pictured myself old—wrinkled, achy, all those things we’re conditioned to dread about old age. I might not know what that’s like, I thought. Might never grow old.

And then a cascade of nevers flooded my mind. Never marry. Never have kids. Never even get on an airplane. Oh! I cried. What had I been doing all my life? The road between my house and the dentist’s office—how often had I driven it? Enough to imprint it like a rut. Would I ever know anything else? I looked at the city lights again, the sky. They seemed to fade, slip through my fingers like sand.

The next morning, Mom, my brother Marty and I met at a café to figure out what to do. The doctor called my cell phone just before we went in, but I already knew what he was going to say. Mom held me in the parking lot then we wiped our eyes and marched into the café. We ordered food and poured through phone books, writing down names of doctors and treatment centers. It felt good to do something.

“Call your friends too,” Mom said. “You know a lot of people in healthcare.” I did. One of them mentioned her mom had recently survived breast cancer. I felt a stir at that word survive. “I’ll have her call you tonight,” my friend said.

That night the phone rang and I heard a friendly, steady voice, about my mom’s age. We talked for awhile about treatment options, and then the woman’s voice grew serious.

“Gayla, listen,” she said, “you’ll think I’m crazy. But I want to tell you something. You are going to be glad you had breast cancer. You will gain from it. You will become a new person. You can’t see that now. But it’s true.”

I said something polite, but soon ended the conversation. What was she talking about? “My whole life ahead of me” now meant a deadly disease. What was good about that?

I set the woman’s words aside and threw myself into treatment the way I’d thrown myself into work. I researched everything online, talked to many doctors. Soon I’d found a surgeon and scheduled a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I knew about recurrence, about survival rates, but I tried not to think about them.

A few days before surgery, my brother Matt spent the night at my house—he knew I was nervous. I awoke around 2:00 A.M., my mind racing. Do something, Gayla, I thought. I swung my legs out of bed and padded to the bathroom. It was clean, but I decided to clean it again. I began scrubbing the sink, the toilet, the bath. Soon my arm ached and I realized I was wiping imaginary spots. I set the sponge down and walked to the guest room. “Matt?” I whispered.

“Hey,” said Matt. “Can’t sleep either?”

“I was cleaning the bathroom.”

Matt turned his light on. He was smiling. “Gayla,” he said quietly, “want me to pray with you?”

I felt myself wobble. “I would really like that.” I sat beside him, and he put his hand on my shoulder. His voice fell into a lulling rhythm, and I found myself thinking again about those words my friend’s mom had said: New person. What did that mean? What kind of person, God? Matt’s voice wove in. “Lord, help us focus on the precious gift of Gayla’s life. It truly is a gift, and we thank you for every day we have with her.” He went on, and I felt suddenly like an ocean liner turning. The gift of life. What had I done with that gift? I groped for images, but all that came was work. “You guys go on without me,” I heard myself say. “Maybe I’ll join you next year.” There might not be a next year, Gayla. It’s time to live. Now. Matt’s voice said, “Amen,” and we sat, silent. Live. Now, a voice seemed to echo. Live.

I had two rounds of surgery, one for each breast, and three months of chemo. It was all awful, especially the chemo, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do the minute the second operation was over. Days later, Mom dropped me off at the Oklahoma City airport. I was bald, wearing a wig of straight brown hair, my torso still wrapped in foot-wide ace bandages. But I didn’t feel like a person with breast cancer. I was a person recovering from cancer, flying all by myself to a survivor’s convention in Washington, D.C.

I walked down the jetway and, for the first time, saw the interior of an airplane. I sat at a window and stared as the plane taxied to position, roared its engines and began heaving down the runway. Grass, pavement, buildings whipped by until, suddenly, the ground fell away and we were flying, the city shrinking, like a toy. The window fogged, then cleared, and I put my hand to my mouth. We were in a cave of clouds, towering walls of gray, a few shafts of sunlight pouring through. And then, just as suddenly, the clouds fell away, and we were above them, above a field of clouds, a kingdom of clouds, light and shadow. I grinned uncontrollably. I was flying! Like I thought I’d never do. My whole life ahead of me.

After the breast-cancer convention, I got a motorcycle license and drove a pink, low-slung Ridley up the California coast to raise awareness about young women with breast cancer. I rode the rapids in Colorado, scuba dived and visited a rain forest. Best of all, I met a man named Grant—online!—and married him. We take a cruise with family every year. That’s right, a cruise. A vacation. Time off work. I realize now just how right my friend’s mom was five years ago. I am a new person. A better person. A person who survived cancer, yes, and who may get it again. But that brush with death has taught me the value of life. It’s a gift from God. I don’t intend to waste it.

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