Changing My Perspective From Victim to Warrior
Can you go from a victim to a warrior in less than a second? It sounds crazy, right? It should take work, lots of work, no? Like, years of therapy, healers, shedding painful tears, yoga, meditation, more therapy, maybe even a trip to Peru to experience Ayahuasca…no? Well, that’s what I would have said three years ago, before cancer. But after surviving stage IV triple-negative breast cancer, I am here to tell you that it's not hard at all! It just happened to me, without trying, and it can happen to you too.
There is one condition, however… Are you open to changing your mind? Are you open to having a different perspective about a certain situation? Are you open to the possibility that the story you’ve been playing in your head, over and over again, can actually be rewritten? If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, then yes, you too can go from victim to warrior…in an instant. AND, you don’t have to get cancer either… Because it’s all about the choices you make. You choose the story you wish to believe, you choose the perspective you wish to take, and you choose to trust (or not trust) in your situation, good or bad. It has nothing to do with luck, or chance, or your astrological sign, or what phase the moon’s in…it’s much more simple. It’s an awareness, a choice, of how you want to show up, and how you want to be.
The moment I transformed from victim to warrior is a moment I will always remember, because, looking back, that one moment changed my life, maybe even saved my life…but I’ll start from the beginning, hoping that by sharing my moment, I can help others define theirs.
B.C. (Before Cancer)
Years leading up to my diagnosis, I was depressed with a capital D. The story in my head played like this: I was NOT getting what I wanted, I was NOT living the life I thought I’d have…to be a mom and have a baby(ies) with my husband Larry. We weren’t married very long, we had met later in life, so when we were in the "dating phase," we had already been trying to conceive because of my age. I was 43 and my eggs were still viable according to our doctors. Realistically, we had about 2–3 more years … which meant that the majority of our relationship was trying to have a baby…which meant having sex at the appropriate times… which meant always knowing when I was ovulating…which meant taking my pre-natal vitamins…which meant forcing Larry to take his vitamins for sperm count. For two weeks every month, I would wonder if I was pregnant, I would hope I was pregnant, I would pray I was pregnant, and I’d be non-stop talking about "what if" I was pregnant…which meant that every time I wasn’t pregnant, I was a little sad (okay, really sad). I felt let down, feeling like the universe was punishing me for something by NOT giving me what I wanted. It was a vicious cycle.
Thinking back to that time, I’m surprised Larry made it down the aisle to marry me: hormones, depression, and all. But, we did get married, happily, and we kept on trying, more aggressively, going through three IVF rounds and many more IUI’s in between, too many to count. When the third round of IVF failed, Larry said he needed a break, we needed a break. We couldn’t afford to keep doing this, financially AND emotionally, and maybe it was time to reevaluate everything. Maybe it was time to get a dog.
UGH. As hard as this was to hear, I knew he was right, especially because financially it was breaking us. And my body needed a rest. So, that was that, we took a break. I told myself we could always adopt once we made back the money we lost, and, in the meantime, I would embrace getting a dog.
Getting a dog was a lot easier than trying to get pregnant. After a couple of weeks of looking, we found a dog named Bo (or he found us), an adorable & anxious Maltipoo who had been hit by a car, who had a broken leg, who desperately needed to be loved, and who must have picked up on the fact that we were desperately needing something to love. Bo became our "baby." It was almost perfect but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I was still missing something in my life, some special purpose of raising a child, some type of love that could only be achieved from having a child, some situation that would make me feel normal, make me feel like I belonged, make me feel good enough to fit in, make me feel less empty…
A.C. (After Cancer)
On December 14th, after never being sick, after always getting regular mammograms and checkups, after achieving a successful career as a healthy, depressed yoga teacher/singer-songwriter/ex-Olympic training gymnast, and after finding a random lump under my armpit, I was diagnosed with stage IV triple-negative breast cancer. For two weeks post-diagnosis, I thought I was going to die. Needless to say, those two weeks were the worst two weeks of my life. My depression convinced me that I was being punished for failing to have kids when I was supposed to, and so my time was up since my life was turning into a pile of purposelessness. I felt like a victim, thinking life wasn’t fair, feeling stressed that I had no control over my situation. The worst part of it all: I was terrified of dying. What I DID realize, without a doubt, was that I didn’t want to die! I thought about everything I had said in the past, about wanting to die and all of that nonsense, thinking, "How could I have said that? OMG what have I done?" I wanted to LIVE dammit! My life, even though messy, was perfect! How could I not have appreciated my health when I had it?! I felt like George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, when he finally appreciated everything he had after seeing what life would have been like without it. But, was it too late for me? My life was far from being a movie, and this was really happening, I was dying.
After receiving a cancer diagnosis, as you know, the first thing to do is find an oncologist. The first two I met stressed me out more, listening to the bleak statistics and intense chemo treatment. My third appointment was with Dr. Dennis Slamon at UCLA, and though my diagnosis stayed the same, that hour-long meeting changed everything. In this appointment, the treatment sounded less intense, AND, he sounded hopeful that I could be cured. But the biggest takeaway was when he addressed the pregnancy issue. He told me that if I had gotten pregnant when we were trying, the pregnancy would have KILLED me. It would have made the cancer spread uncontrollably, and it would have been too late to stop it.
Pause…then…poof… victim to warrior… like Clark Kent becoming Superman…
A rush of chills took over my body. "Wait," I thought, "that would mean the universe was saving my life all of those times by NOT letting me get pregnant… OMG, I wasn’t being punished after all, I was being saved... and maybe cancer is not my curse?!"
And just like that, I realized stage IV cancer was a gift, not a punishment. I saw the universe, or GOD, as my friend, my protector, my guide, and my support team. I saw the next chapter as a cleanse, and maybe something my soul needed, to evolve, to love deeper, to heal, who knows, but I was very curious and open to all of it. And it didn’t stop there…the feeling continued to fill me with purpose, a desire to help my doctors at UCLA find a cure for cancer. Of course, I had no clue how I was going to do this, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I knew I could figure it out because my life and other lives depended on it. This positive energy kept growing, filling my body up with electricity, and giving me a sense that I was going to be okay. This whole experience was going to be the best thing to happen to me AND my husband, Larry. I remember walking out of Dr. Slamon’s office that day, still scared, but smiling for the first time in a long time, because I knew, "Jenn, you got this."
Today, five years later, I’m cancer-free, the founder/CEO of a company called Zero Negative, and the co-author of a book I wrote with Larry, Everyone Needs a Larry. Zero Negative's goal is to promote LOVE and POSITIVITY through accessories while raising money for cancer research at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation. The book is a he-said-she-said account by the patient and caregiver, to share our lessons and mistakes to help other couples through their cancer journeys.
I can honestly say that cancer WAS the best thing to have happened to me…to us. The lessons I learned about the importance of self-love ranged from how to love and forgive myself to being able to open up and receive love from others. These lessons became the essence of my company, as well as the lessons in gratitude and positivity. At the root of my disease was a broken heart. My heart was technically beating, but it had shut down from years and years of criticizing myself, not feeling good enough, not feeling worthy of having what I wanted, and not feeling loved by myself. It took stage IV cancer to reveal a new perspective on life, to realize I was worthy, and I was strong. It took stage IV cancer for me to appreciate the joy of being alive, no matter what. It took cancer to show me that changing your mind/perspective can change your life. It took cancer to show me that the stories in our minds can always be rewritten. It took cancer to show me that there’s always a positive in a negative, no matter what. It took stage IV cancer to understand the power of LOVE.
My life was perfect leading up to my diagnosis. What didn’t work out was necessary not to work out, and how happy and grateful I am now looking back at those things not working out. So, how about you? Are you upset about something in your life now that’s not working out? Did you ever think there might be a really good reason for it, even though you might not know why yet? What if you were grateful for the doors that closed, the boyfriends or girlfriends that broke your heart, the missed opportunities that you call failures? What if you could say THANK YOU to everything that hurt you, or everything that didn’t work out? The simple act of being grateful changes your body chemistry, your stress levels, your trust in the universe, your trust in yourself, and how you see your situation. We don’t always know why things are happening, but we can believe and we can trust that whatever is happening, it's happening for us, and everything is perfect as is. And, you are perfect as is, and once you understand this, you too will go from victim to warrior…in an instant.
I had everything I needed when I was depressed, I just didn’t see it… I had life, I had health, I had love, I had friends, I had family, I had drama…and it was perfectly imperfect! So be grateful for what you have now, because we really don’t know what’s next. And we don’t need as much as we think we do… after my diagnosis, all I really needed was to stay alive, to make it through… If that was enough then, then why wouldn’t it be enough now?
Did my diagnosis become the best thing to happen to me because I believed it to be, or, did I luck out regardless of what I believed? I’ll never know for sure. But, the fact that I went from having stage IV cancer to being cancer free in four months…well, I bet you can guess what I think!
Photo courtesy of author.
Jennifer Greenhut Tollin turned her stage IV breast cancer diagnosis into an inspiring, uplifting story. The lessons she learned led her to create Zero Negative, which promotes love through accessories that give back to UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation. Most recently, Jennifer published a book she wrote with her husband, Larry. Everyone Needs a Larry is a he-said-she-said quirky, romantic, and humorous survival story that shares the lessons, mistakes, and joys of a couple fumbling their way through cancer, love, and marriage. Jennifer lives in Southern California with her husband, Larry, and their dog, Bo.