Conversation with Cancer Survivor Therese Billings

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Therese Billings is a Seattle-area resident who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. In all, she has experienced seven diagnoses: three primaries and four recurrences. Here are some of her thoughts on being a survivor.

Q: How has cancer changed your life?
A: On the positive side, I no longer worry about the small stuff and I try not to take anything — or anybody — for granted. I've also created a much healthier lifestyle for myself that takes into account the needs of mind, body and spirit, and definitely includes a deepening of my spiritual journey. You could probably sum it all up by saying that I take everything a bit slower, and do spend more time appreciating life.

Also, I've found a lot of peace in being able to forgive everyone who has wronged me in life ... and even more peace in being able to forgive myself. Forgiveness brings a great deal of freedom. One of my big interests since first being diagnosed is helping others through their cancer journey, and I've done this by leading a breast-cancer support group and taking part in various survivor collaborations, partnerships, events and programs. Helping others who are walking in my shoes is among my life's most satisfying and enjoyable experiences.

On the less than positive side, I don't have the energy I once did, but I wake up each day determined to make the best of my "new normal." And every spring, when the flowers bloom and the "cleavage" comes out, I get that twinge of grief over the loss of my breasts. But hey, I'm alive!

Q: Regarding any positive changes, do you think these changes would have occurred if you had never experienced cancer?
A: Who's to say? The experience has catapulted me into a wonderful realm, though, and my life is more positive than ever before. I believe that cancer has given me my truest self and I find that today, I really, really like who I am.

Q: What personal victories have you achieved since your cancer diagnosis?
A: Perhaps my biggest victory is that I've been able to overcome my fears on all levels. Not much scares me anymore ... except when I have to go in for another scan — I hate that!

I have learned to set boundaries and say NO. I landed a dream job working as the director of cancer survivorship at the YMCA of Greater Seattle.  I have been able to share with my five grown children and my eight grandchildren the wisdom I've earned through my cancer experience — this to me is invaluable. In my pre-cancer life I was not a leader, but my experiences with the disease have given me new courage. Using that courage, I  developed and ran a breast-cancer support group, I sit on the National Expert Panel for the LAF/YMCA Cancer Survivorship Collaboration, I am a member of the Washington Comprehensive Cancer Control Partnership and was a featured participant on two recent TV segments for wellness. I'm involved with a number of other cancer-related activities as well.

Q: Do you think/worry about recurrence? If so, how do you deal with this?
A: I would say I don't worry like I used to. It is always on a back burner but it doesn't consume me. My spiritual walk helps. I meditate every morning and center myself for the day. After most of my diagnoses I felt that the cancer was gone, that "they got it all." Then, the cancer would come back. After my last diagnosis I finally decided to embrace the word remission. I might be in "remission" until I'm 95 and die of old age. OK by me! I can't just sit around worrying about dying. We are all going to die. It just happens that this reality is front-and-center for me. I have made my peace with death and I'm okay with it today. It's part of life.

Q: Is there anything other people could have done during or after your cancer treatment that would have been helpful?
A: Right after my second diagnosis, I had a co-worker duck into a room when he saw me coming. I believe it's because he just didn't know what to say. It's hard to be the odd person out under any circumstances, but particularly when one is labeled as having cancer. I would have preferred him to approach me and simply state, "I am so sorry, I just don't know what to say and I'm scared for you."

Ditching me hurt, but I understand why he did it and feel compassion for him and his fear around this disease. So, it's all good!

I would like people touched by cancer via loved one, friend, etc. to educate themselves on "chemo brain," it's a very real and sometimes long-term issue for most chemo survivors. I had some people tease me on the job because I couldn't remember things and that hurt. I simply can't help it. When you go through chemo, brain cells are murdered!

Q. How are your views on life and living different now, as a cancer survivor?
A: Cancer has made me more aware that life is a precious and vulnerable gift and it could be lived wisely, tenderly and with love. Let the events of your life - the good, the bad, the ugly — be your teachers. We have something to learn from everything we go through and it's much more pleasant to approach life this way than always complaining when things don't go "your way."

Don't put off doing things or saying things until tomorrow. Do them now! Do what brings you joy, not just what you have to do or should do. In the words of George Bernard Shaw: "Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

I am not as ready to judge people by their cover. We never know what's going on in a person's life or what their background has been - or what issues they might have from childhood that cause certain behaviors in their lives. Everyone is a child of the universe and wants to be treated with respect.

Don't miss a moment. Live to the fullest in each of your moments. You never know when life will end or you will lose someone you love.  If you have one foot in tomorrow and one foot in yesterday, then you're missing out on all the beauty that can be found in today!