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Survivor to Thriver

by LauraLynn Jansen

Cancer gave me far more than it took from me.

A sacred link to my most essential self is what I found through living with cancer. No matter how many times I try to deny this central place in me, it reappears, giving me another chance to live my life to the very fullest. This discovery came out of nowhere.

I lived out my days on the beaches of Southern California, marking my hours at a local record store till I made my first big break in modeling. Emergency room doors abruptly interrupted my California dream. My young, nave mind had no idea what was about to take over my life and change me forever.

My second day in the hospital all the beeping devices, except my IV, has been removed giving me back a sense of bodily freedom. A mini red fire hat sitting atop my disheveled bleached blonde hair and a pair of black spectacles comprised my hospital Halloween costume thanks to my visitors. The large rubber nose and furry, black mustache attached to the glasses, tickled my face. Through the fake nose I notice the distinct generic smell of a hospital, while Joel, a record store bud, bestows upon me a Tiki totem to scare off bad spirits.

The numerous conversations distract me as another friend makes us cringe with the twisting of balloons. My legs are bound to the hospital bed by stark white sheets and a knitted blanket, which is now covered with a mound of multi-colored animal balloons. For a few moments it seems as if everything will return to life as it was before last night. Soon I'd be back on the beaches just blocks away and re-engaging my pursuit of being America's next supermodel.

Our party and my dream state are interrupted by a knock on the door. Before anyone can answer it, the surgeon who performed my biopsy enters the room. I touch the large, white gauze bandage covering the right side of my neck and the stark white hospital sheets rub against my bare butt as I sit up higher in my bed to meet his approach.

The doctor asks everyone, but my Aunt Hope, to leave the room. I am perturbed with his interruption of my Halloween party. It seems the doctors and nurses come only when I am trying to fall asleep, visiting with someone or just want to be left alone.

I stare out the window through my thick plastic spectacles, which he soon asks me to remove. I resent him more deeply.

I look around him out to the stark grey buildings outside. He speaks quickly and abruptly, "You have a malignant tumor between your heart and lungs and it has spread to the lymph nodes of your neck and armpits. You will need to go through chemotherapy and this is likely to leave you sterile. Radiation is also being suggested. Your prognosis is a 50% chance of survival. Any questions?"

Did he actually ask me that? I hope he did because it meant he actually had a heart. I am sure I didn't respond. My aunt's tears are my next recollection as my body dropped far away into a deep sense of aloneness as the aftermath of his words settled upon me. His exit prompted a mass exodus of all my visitors waiting in the hall, as they sensed the energetic shift.

For ten years I carried hatred in my heart for that doctor. Then I attended a writing workshop during my graduate school program at the California Institute of Integrative Studies. Deena Metzger, a cancer survivor asked the class to write of a story we had told again and again to the point of automation. I chose the moment of my diagnosis. I wrote it as I had told it what felt like a million times.

For the second part of our exercise we wrote that same moment from the perspective of someone else in the room. I choose the doctor. When I began to put my body and brain inside his I came up with several tough questions. How had it been for him to tell a twenty-year-old girl she would never have children? That her life could be turning toward its end already? I resented losing my youth, but blaming him just didn't fit anymore.

My survivorship became my passion for being alive instead of a burden to carry heavily around my neck. I volunteered - facilitating groups for women living with cancer, being in a peer support network and eventually nationally advocating for health rights. My heart tugged between a deep anger at the disease and an endless well of compassion.

A constant struggle played out in my mind. Where would my energies best serve those I felt akin to through cancer?

I yelled my outrage, in the streets - protesting and shaming chemical companies for polluting our world. I walked the steps of Capitol Hill on behalf of folks whose bodies were filled with chemicals and irradiated. I cried at hospice bedsides as dying women, left their pain-ridden bodies for another world. My rawness and the feeling of injustice fed my activism.

This energy transformed after years of front line combat, an internal shift pointed me toward being proactive in another way. Now I lead my advocacy with a balanced compassion with an eye toward social justice. I co-create health one-on-one in hopes of preventing life shattering experiences. All the while still speaking the truths of the struggle after a cancer diagnosis to those I know, and on Capitol Hill.

I ride my bike for hours and hours across the desert despite lungs scarred by radiation and limited by asthma instead of coddling my body from the 'what ifs.' Now survivorship is synonymous with championing myself, and those around me, while I remain connected to life's sacredness.

I have added to my self definition a new term, 'a thriver.'

LauraLynn Jansen, MHEd, CPCC, PFT, RYT is an Integrative Health Coach, a multi-faceted approach to aligning life and wellness through fitness, nourishment, flexibility and mind-centering practices. This newest endeavor is the culmination of a long and successful line of health-focused community work, training and education. LauraLynn began advocating the importance of a wellness focus in health care after facing a life-threatening illness in her youth. Her visionary determination has been the power behind her ability to continually pursue, in herself and with others, a spirit that thrives through life's challenges.