Don’t Hold Back
Rethink is honoured to be the guest editor for Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue, which is dedicated to highlighting the struggles of life after cancer diagnosis.
Here is Sharon’s story.
I stood on stage with the audience looking up at me and waiting to hear something inspiring. Two of my friends were sitting on the far left, looking at me with admiration and love. They knew how hard it was for me to get up on the stage that day.
With my mind overloaded, my body weak, and in an almost out-of-body experience, I found myself talking about perseverance, eliminating excuses and not letting things stop you from what you want to do. Instead of talking about personal branding and building an audience, I told the audience that whatever it is that keeps them from moving forward now, it’s not a good enough reason. And that if they set their minds on their goals and are determined to reach them, NOTHING can hold them back.
My heart started racing. I had decided to do something that I wasn’t planning on doing, and definitely not in front of an audience. I took a big breath and said, “You never know what other people have had to overcome to even just BE here today”. My voice was breaking from holding back tears… and then… I took off my wig.
The audience erupted in applause, as they all stood up one by one and gave me a standing ovation. The auditorium was filled with cheers and many people were crying.
I stood there on stage feeling nervous but powerful, holding my wig in hand and ready to own my new identity – not as a victim but as a f*cking inspiration!
It was in November 2019, while I was in the middle of a business seminar when I got the news. As an international speaker and branding strategist, I attend many full day events, often to give lectures, run workshops or just share my experience. But that day I had snuck out to get the results from my biopsy, with the intention of coming back after my brief appointment.
My doctor sat in front of me and with a slow and radio-like voice, she told me it was cancer. “It’s really aggressive and fast growing”, she said. Of course it is, I thought to myself, sounds just like me. She said a bunch of other things that meant nothing to me at the time and then told me surgery was booked for the following week.
I laughed a bitter laugh of desperation. Let’s just say I had other big plans for that week, and there I sat forced to choose between them. A huge event that I had been preparing months for, speaking in front of 3000 business owners, sharing the stage with celebrities like Dr. Phil, Russell Peters, Vince Vaughn and many others, selling my programs and growing my business. OR my health, possibly even my life! I was so angry. Why now? My business was growing like crazy. I was moving from one exciting opportunity to another.
And then, out of nowhere–cancer. And not just “cut it out and get it over with” kind of cancer. It was a lumpectomy and then chemotherapy. Before that, fertility treatments and egg extraction, and then radiation and more surgeries. Then 10 more years of hormonal treatments. This was going to be my life going forward.
I asked my doctor flat out if I’d be able to work through treatment. She said I should expect not to be able to do much for at least six months. I could not believe it.
As a branding strategist with the image and energy of a strong leader, how could I let cancer be a part of my brand? My identity? My persona? When you have your own business, you can’t just disappear for six months. Especially when you are the leading force of that business. So, I decided to keep it a secret.
Keeping my persona wasn’t easy. I didn’t look or feel myself anymore, with no hair, eyelashes or eyebrows and with dark circles around my eyes and scars on my chest. I couldn’t workout like I used to, I was nauseous, I was sensitive to random things, I couldn’t taste food, I kept forgetting things, losing focus, and my vision started getting blurry.
Mostly, I found myself losing my beliefs. Things that I cared for seemed meaningless. I was only 32 years old when I was diagnosed with no genetic involvement. I am fit, I am healthy, I don’t do ANY of the things that supposedly put me at risk, so WHAT THE F*CK?!
Three days after my second chemo session, I was scheduled to speak at the first “Inspiring Minds Circle” event in Canada. My throat was burning, my voice almost gone and feeling so weak. I was really worried and battled with myself until deciding to go to the event.
And that was the day I went on stage and decided to share my story for the first time.
My legs were shaking. I felt exposed and fearful. A part of me just kept saying, now that they know, no one will want to work with you. But they cheered me on. I looked at them and realized I hadn’t lost my identity. It just got a little more interesting.
That day while on a panel, the question about life’s meaning came up. All the women agreed in their own way that life is a journey, like a puzzle with many pieces and with each piece you get to learn more and grow more.
I didn’t agree.
When I didn’t chime in on the question, the audience looked to me for more profound wisdom as a cancer patient. But they were about to hear it as plain and as un-profound as it can be.
“Life is temporary, everything is.” I said. To many, this could be a depressing thought as we all like to believe in a deeper meaning and ultimate purpose. But I find this truth to be liberating. It means that you can stop waiting for things to happen in the right moment and you can go and make them happen. It means that when something shitty or something amazing happens it won’t last forever. It means you can stop making excuses for yourself and caring about what others think. It means that we can go out there and be ourselves and everything will be ok.
The “beauty” of cancer is that it’s a constant threat. It’s not a “near death experience” that makes you appreciate life for a month or two and then easily gets forgotten in routine. Cancer is always in your ear saying, “life has no guarantees,” and some days it will push you to be extra nice, and some days it might push you to be extra naughty. And both are ok.
The experience of cancer is always going to be here reminding me that life is temporary and that I come first. And I think that’s a gift.
Cancer doesn’t have to define who you are, but it can offer you an identity reboot. So, remember you have complete control over your identity and how people see you. It’s ok if you feel completely different, and it’s ok if you feel the same.
Facing cancer can be just a chapter, not the whole story. It’s up to you to choose. – Sharon Zehavi