Jane Gillespie lives in Australia, where she where she works with a cancer foundation, is a counselor and author. She was not always so self-confident. After surviving breast cancer, she fell apart. She had professional counseling and joined a support group. She changed her life, her career, and found a new identity. Jane tells her survivor story here.
In 1994, I was a single parent caring for a disabled 16 year old, the only one of my three children still living at home. After my regular annual medical checkup, my doctor recommended that I have a routine mammogram, simply because of my age. How lucky was I! After this first ever mammogram, something suspicious was found and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This necessitated a mastectomy and chemotherapy.
My Breakdown Despite surviving the onslaught of treatment, a few months after this finished, I had a breakdown. I had resigned from my job because life seemed too short to be doing something I was not passionate about and my energy levels were so low I had to have some time out. While I was dealing with the disease, I had kept the lid firmly on my feelings about having to face my mortality, but not having work to go to and no more regular hospital visits meant that there was now nothing else to focus on. I could not hide any longer.
Crisis of Identity Ever since my daughter was born, I had believed that my role was to take care of her until she died. Now here I was facing the possibility that I could die first and I agonized over what would become of her. It did not matter that my oncologist told me that my prognosis was good. I was convinced that I was going to die without ever having truly lived. My life now seemed to have been a waste. Sure, I had raised three children, one with special needs, but I could not see me anywhere in the picture. Until then, my whole reason for being was based around my family. I had always seen myself as a daughter, wife, and mother. I had no sense of identity as an individual.
Help from a New Oncologist sent my daughter to live with her father and stepmother and moved to Sydney. Unfortunately, you cannot run away from yourself, I was still crippled by anxiety, and panic attacks. Luckily, my new oncologist referred me to a psychiatrist who worked with cancer patients. This doctor explained to me that many cancer survivors feel exactly the same way; why would I? My whole life had been shaken to its core and my current feelings of grief at the loss of the life I had always known had brought up unresolved grief from the past.
Life Force Cancer Foundation His prescription for me was to join a support group. My oncologist is one of the Patrons of Life Force Cancer Foundation, so I joined a Life Force support group. My despair about possibly not surviving my daughter could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy and attending those meetings saved my life. I was able to work through the grief I felt at the loss of my pre-cancer life. It was immaterial that I did not feel that life had amounted to very much. It was all I knew and I was floundering. The other group members let me be a mess for as long as I needed to and this was the best possible medicine for me at that time.
Regaining Confidence After I had regained some of my physical strength, I enrolled at a local college in a course for women wanting to re-enter the workforce. At the beginning, I did not believe that I would ever be able to function competently again. I thought that in the unlikely event that anyone would ever want to employ me, I was incapable of learning new skills. However, by the end of the course my shattered confidence was starting to come back.
Career and Family Changes I got a job as a part-time bank teller and began a counseling course. I graduated two years later and joined the Life Force Cancer Foundation team. These days I co-facilitate two weekly support groups in Sydney for cancer patients and survivors, as well as weekend retreats for survivors, patients, and caregivers. A year after I left my daughter, I brought her to Sydney. She now lives by herself, supported by an organization that assists people with disabilities to live independently and we have both learned that she can survive without me.
Writing, Counseling, Public Speaking Writing was something I had loved as a teenager, but I somehow let it go after marriage. In 2000, I enrolled in a novel writing course. I eventually resigned from the bank in 2002 to set up my own counseling practice, and to write the 'Great Australian Novel'. My novel is still a work in progress but a book I wrote Journey to Me about my experience of surviving cancer and building a new life for myself, was published in March 2007. I am a spokesperson for Life Force and am now branching out into public speaking about how it is never too late to change your life. I have also had a novella published and have written several others. Writing is part of my daily life.
Civil Marriage Celebrant In 2004 I trained to become a Civil Marriage Celebrant and was appointed that year. I still love my work with cancer patients and their families, because these people inspire me. However, I feel that my connection with happy couples while they are planning their future lives together balances out the occasional sadness connected with my work with cancer patients. It is important to me to feel that I make a difference to people's lives and I believe both my careers help me to do this.
Painting My Life's Canvas Cancer may not be a death sentence, but it is a life sentence. I still live with the Sword of Damocles hanging over me, because there are no guarantees that I will not have a recurrence. I will never view cancer as a blessing in my life; more like a blunt instrument! However, it did become the springboard for me to make a fulfilling and joyful new life where I have a sense of who I am, just as me.
My favorite saying these days is, "Life is a great big canvas and you should throw as much paint on it as you can." - Danny Kaye. Life is good.