Healing Through an Act of Vulnerability

What does it mean to be vulnerable? What does vulnerability look like? What does it take to be vulnerable? I am, by no means, an expert in this area. It is something I’m always working on, but the past nine (!) years have helped me in this area.

Things weren’t too shabby for me at the start of 2011. I had just celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary, started a new job, and had some good friends. I was proud of the fact that I didn’t really feel like I needed to lean on others; that I could do things on my own without asking for help. I thought not asking for help, keeping my feelings inside—this all showed strength.

My cancer diagnosis didn’t give me much time to ease into asking for help from others. After my diagnosis, but before I could start chemo, I had to have a heart procedure to relieve a large amount of fluid that was building up around my heart. I was about to turn 36 years old and I had never so much as broken a bone, and in the blink of an eye, I was told I had cancer and also needed a heart procedure. I knew so little about hospitals; I asked the scheduler if I’d be going home the same day as the procedure. She sweetly said, “Oh, honey, they’re working on your heart, so you’ll be in the hospital a few days.”

In an instant, I went from doing everything on my own to relying on others to feed me mashed potatoes and help me to the restroom. 

May 23, 2011, started my education on vulnerability; and what an education it’s been in the nine years since. It’s so scary and risky to be vulnerable. I think we always have that fear of rejection. We can learn early on that it’s best to display strength. Maybe we opened up to a friend only to have that friend reject our feelings or respond in a way different than what we hoped or expected.

Even in the hardest moments of treatment, I found it difficult to ask my friends for help.

Cancer, or any chronic illness, can force us into the scary world of vulnerability. We’re suddenly forced to rely on others: to take us to treatment, to help with errands, to hold our (rapidly falling out) hair back as we throw up, to help get us to the bathroom and back to bed, or maybe as just a sympathetic shoulder to lean (or cry) on as we navigate the rough waters of cancer. One thing I know, without a doubt, is that saying those three little words is one of the most difficult things I ever do. No, not those three little words, these three little words, “I need help.” Even in the hardest moments of treatment, I found it difficult to ask my friends for help. I would learn that my husband would text my friends and tell them I needed a visit, or, at the very least, a milkshake. How hard is it to ask for a milkshake?! Apparently, very hard!

Up until just a couple of years ago, I found it difficult to talk about my feelings. I could be very open about treatment, my diagnosis, the medical stuff; but opening up about my feelings; I just couldn’t do it. I found that I was honest but straightforward. Not lying, but not completely open. I soon found myself in what I’ll call a chicken or egg situation: my friends thought I was so brave and strong, but the more they told me I was so brave and strong, the less sure I felt about telling them I was scared out of my mind about everything: treatment, my diagnosis, recovery, everything. Did I put up the brave front based on what others told me about my bravery, or did they tell me I was so brave and strong because I was too weak to really open up to them?

This cycle continued until I had a full bone marrow transplant on December 20, 2013. This event made me more open to others and willing to share my feelings because two things happened: I had to have the bone marrow of another person to save my life, and it was such a rough recovery, no one thought I was going to make it out of the hospital alive (a fact shared with me by others after the fact). So, first, I had to ask family, friends, and, ultimately, strangers to get swabbed to try to save my life. Talk about scary: asking others to save your life! Second, facing the possibility of death. When I came home after my transplant (I was away from home for seven months), I realized people seemed surprised at how sick I really had been. I realized that was on me, I never really opened up to people. I decided to change that. I decided to tell people the scary experiences, the wanting to die part, the almost dying part. 

So, is there a secret to vulnerability? If there is one, I’d say it’s trusting the people who surround you. Especially in this current climate of a pandemic, I feel vulnerability is more important than ever. Opening up to those around us, and sharing our thoughts, feelings, experiences, FEARS, we’re actually telling our loved ones, “you can trust me to be vulnerable with me. You can trust your feelings and fears with me.” Vulnerability helps connect us. When we take that risk and share some part of us with others, our reward can be so great.


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