Months ago, I was asked to speak at the National Women’s Show in April. It’s easy to say ‘Yes’ to something when it is months away. The day slowly crept up and before I knew it, it was this past weekend.
I shot my mouth off and invited my mom and aunt to come up for the weekend as I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend the weekend together. Actually, while I was growing up, my mom, my aunt and I would all drive to Montreal twice a year to see my other aunt for the weekend. When I was fifteen, my aunt from Montreal died from pancreatic cancer and so I thought having my mom and aunt come to watch me speak about cancer was somewhat symbolic. As the day got closer, I started to get nervous because I was not only asked to speak, but I was asked to speak for 20 minutes. The longest I had spoken at an event was about 15 minutes and although the time whizzes by, my fear is that no one wants to hear about cancer for 20 minutes.
Regardless, I cranked out a speech and included challenges, hurdles, sweet stories, and times when I laughed in cancer’s face. I went over it and over it on Saturday morning in preparation for Sunday afternoon’s 2:30 slot. I practiced on Keith too many times to count and after the trillionth time, he said ‘You’re treating this like an oral presentation. Treat it like you are just having a conversation.’ Don’t tell him I said this, but he was right. That’s exactly what was wrong. I was trying to memorize my own story. I started looking at my ‘speech’ less as a grade six school presentation and more like a chat with my girlfriends and I felt much more comfortable. Why didn’t I think of that?
My mom and aunt got into town at about 4:30 and we met them for dinner. We had a delightful Chinese meal and afterwards, I opened my fortune cookie and it read like this:
Dammit, I know. I get it. Move on! Quit dwelling on cancer. Enjoy life. You survived. Sometimes, I feel like life is begging me to move on and I just keep wanting to hold on because by moving on I am accepting that cancer was allowed to do this to me and I am admitting that I have accepted it. And by moving on, I fear that I won’t know who I am without cancer by my side. And if I move on, what is my excuse of being tired, and not having a breast?
That was a bit of an aside but it’ll tie in later, I promise. Anyway, Keith left us girls and we stayed up much too late chatting. I took one last attempt at practicing my speech then closed my eyes.
We headed to the women’s show at about 11am the next morning and as my mom and aunt went from booth to booth my stomach got tighter and tighter. I read that there were supposed to be 35 000 women go through this show this weekend and although I saw the stage that I was speaking on and saw that there was only room for about 35 women to sit while listening to me, I was freaking out a little bit. I have spoken in front of eight hundred people before, why was I nervous about this?
I started thinking about being perfect. I started thinking about being hilarious at the right times and getting the attention of the right person so that I could share my story at the next big event or write an article for a magazine or start a new career in public speaking (I think you get the drift and maybe a little of the delusion, too).
And then as I watched my mom and aunt booth-hop from the end of the aisles anxiously waiting for 2:30pm, I all of a sudden realized that this wasn’t about me. This wasn’t about how ‘well’ I did. This wasn’t about being funny, or witty, or clever or smart looking. This was about that one woman in the audience who felt alone until today or that one woman who felt a lump but she was told that she was too young to have breast cancer. Like a huge bag of hammers slamming over my head, it hit me that this wasn’t about me.
I had a sense of calm come over me and as I flicked my headset microphone from ‘off’ to ‘on’ I was completely ready to go on stage. So here we were, it was 2:30pm and it was time for the Professional Breast Cancer Ass-Kicker to go on stage.
As I was about a minute into my speech, a woman in her fifties came over, sat down and had a look on her face that said ‘Oh good, I didn’t miss this.’ Throughout the twenty minutes, she did a lot of nodding, some crying, some laughing, and a lot of tear wiping. When I was finished, I got off the stage and went over to my mom and aunt. The woman in the audience was speaking to one of the women who belonged to the group that I was speaking for. I could see that she had been crying and so I went over to her and put my hand on her back and asked if she was ok. She told me that she had been diagnosed when she was 20 and then again when she was 40 and she could relate to so much of what I said (she continued to wipe the tears). Then, what made it all worth it was her saying, ‘You know, I didn’t know why I came here today. I came by myself and wasn’t sure why I was here. Now I know. I came to hear you speak.’ Regardless of being out of treatment for years, she still had pain, and still had tears that hadn’t been cried yet. She got the contact information for the group that I was speaking for and is going to contact them for support. Why did I ever think that this was about me?
It’s women like this that make me get up in front of ten, a hundred, or eight hundred people and share my story. Once I realized that it wasn’t about me, I was able to help someone - the same way I was in India. I struggled for the first couple of days of my placement in Delhi because I didn’t know where to start, or how I would fit in or how the children would take to me but once I stopped making it about me and made it about the children, learning happened. This weekend, once I made my speech about someone else, I was able and prepared and that woman ended up getting what she needed from my speech.
I think that damn fortune cookie was right and I think as soon as I realized that it wasn’t about me, I was able to take another step towards closing my cancer chapter – not leaving cancer behind, but growing from my experience in order to help others and starting my next chapter. I think I am learning to use my story to help someone else rather than needing the help myself. Oh Lord, is this what they call an epiphany?