By Heather Hall (Delta Zeta, Central Michigan University)
Cancer first touched my life when I was 21, three months shy of graduating from Central Michigan University. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, I underwent months of chemotherapy and a surgery replacing part of my left femur, knee and tibia with titanium. I graduated between chemo treatments, on crutches and wearing a wig.
A few years later, I had surgery for melanoma. Then at 43, a routine mammogram found early stage breast cancer. A lumpectomy, chemo and radiation followed, then removal of my ovaries to push me into menopause to lower my recurrence risk.
Going through cancer at any stage of life is challenging. In addition to everyday life milestones, a cancer diagnosis brings new obstacles, such as navigating employment rights, treatment side effects, possible fertility issues, relationships and financial challenges.
There is a ton of advice and resources for cancer survivors. It can be overwhelming! My best advice is “you do you.” Listen to others’ journeys, get input, check out resources. But then make decisions that are best for you! I’ve learned what works for someone else may not work for me. And vice versa. Be your own advocate.
There is so much sadness and heavy emotions surrounding cancer – it’s a terrible disease that wreaks havoc on our lives. But there is still beauty around us. Sometimes focusing on that beauty, especially the simplest things, brings comfort to our challenges. It gets me through the days. So I started my blog (www.heathershangout.com) with the intention to share the good, bad and ugly about living through and beyond cancer. Some days that may mean feeling frustrated, sad or anxious over treatment side effects. Other days, it’s celebrating a cancer anniversary with self-care ideas. Another day I’m encouraging people to get active on a bike or hike. In some ways, my focus on living beyond cancer is my way of living life on my own terms.
The resources, tips and random musings shared in my blog are meant to help others – not just cancer survivors, but also caregivers and others who know someone impacted by cancer (or another disease). Because a cancer journey doesn’t end when treatment does (treatment never ends for some), but sometimes support from others does. It makes for a lonely journey. Trying to understand what we’re going through, how to lend a listening ear or be a good friend are wonderful gifts. If I can also motivate and inspire people to get through the day, I’m honored to do that too.
I’m alive after clearing three cancers thanks to hard work of others before me, from advocates pushing for research and preventive screenings to survivors sharing their experiences and organizations offering impactful services. I’m grateful for all of this, so I try to give back. I’ve been an advocate for Livestrong, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and other organizations for years, meeting with state and federal officials to ensure cancer-fighting legislation remains a priority. I also serve as a mentor to other cancer survivors and present at workshops and conferences. One of my greatest personal achievements as a cancer survivor has been joining Livestrong to bike across Iowa to raise awareness of and funds for their cancer support programs. Despite COVID-19 taking our team ride virtual again this year, I biked 402 miles in July for Livestrong! Not only is it for a great cause, it’s also a reminder to myself that I have overcome so much. And will continue to.
One constant in life since college has been my Alpha Chi Omega sisterhood. Through my cancer diagnoses and many other ups and downs, my sorority sisters are there. Through our local metro Detroit alumnae chapter, Alpha Omega Alpha, I’ve been able to meet sisters from various collegiate chapters and walks of life. I also find much strength and motivation in our tagline, Real. Strong. Women. I love the empowering vibe that I get from this. It inspires me to strive to be a real, strong woman no matter what I’m facing.
Heather Hall is a graduate of the Delta Zeta chapter at Central Michigan University. She is a national cancer advocate, speaker, blogger and writer. An osteosarcoma, melanoma and breast cancer survivor, Heather has spoken at events across the country and led sessions and programs relating to sharing your cancer story, advocacy, communication strategies, social media, volunteer engagement and community involvement. The metro Detroit native hosts a blog, Heather’s Hangout, to share the ups and downs of life as a cancer survivor. Follow Heather on Instagram @heathershangout and Twitter @heatherhall3.