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Finding Strength: The Story Of A Breast Cancer Survivor

Carissa is a 25-year-old breast cancer survivor and grateful recipient of a GiveForward fundraiser. A University of Colorado graduate, Carissa now lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend, Jamin.

I imagine that all cancer patients remember the moment they were diagnosed with impeccable clarity. That moment – the official delivery of such dreaded news – is so distinct that it feels as if it occurred mere hours ago rather than months earlier.

My nurse Jeanne called me at work on November 2nd. “We did find cancer in those tumors,” she told me. My heart stopped at that moment. I choked out a response as I shuffled into a quiet room at my office. I tried to scribble all the information she gave me, but I was barely listening to her. All I could think was cancer, cancer, cancer.

Breast cancer? How? I was only 24 years old.

The news spread within a few hours and before I knew it a flood of support engulfed my family and I. Friends and family stocked my fridge, filled my mailbox with kind notes and sent positive vibes and prayers from all over the country. By the time I got to my first chemotherapy appointment, I felt like there was an army behind me.

As I settled into the role of a cancer patient, I thought a lot about those that had come before me. Strong is a word often associated with patients, and it had certainly been a common thread among all the encouragement I received. When I thought of strength, I thought of invincibility. I pictured unyielding mountains and huge, healthy redwood trees.

There were certainly times when I felt strong. Maybe not redwood tree strong, but strong enough to wonder, how the hell am I doing this? How did I shave my head? How did I make it through those chemotherapy treatments? The surgery? How did I show up to work every day? It seemed I recognized my strength most in retrospect.

And then there were times when I felt anything but strong. Nights spent quietly crying myself to sleep; days completely wasted as the chemo haze overcame me. Sometimes I didn’t know exactly what I was upset about, other than the obvious. I found myself completely enveloped in my own grief as I cried and cried and cried.

About two months into treatment, I finished reading a book about cancer in your 20s and 30s. The passage below, an interview with a twenty-something woman with cancer, stuck with me:

“Being strong is not just about being inspirational or having your sh*t together. It’s about being able to freak out, too, so long as you don’t get stuck there. Being strong is admitting that you are vulnerable ‘cause we don’t want to believe that anything can affect us… You know what? It’s affected me. I’m in shock right now. I’m freaking out. Maybe I’ll start healing now that I’m actually able to be sad. I don’t want this to go on forever because it’s actually very draining, but in my weakness I feel stronger.”

I began to understand that succumbing to sadness did not translate to failure, lack of positivity or absence of hope. Instead, these moments helped me process what was truly happening to me. And in acknowledging my own vulnerability, I felt the strength that so many supporters willed me to hold. Admitting vulnerability not only gave me courage, it also allowed me to accept the help of family and friends. Along with the sadness that came with this diagnosis, there were some very special gestures, small and large, sprinkled along the way.

One incredible gesture was the creation of the Run for Carissa fundraiser that my childhood friend, Nicole, orchestrated. The donations rolled in within minutes of the fundraiser’s launch. The first from a stranger. The second from a classmate I hadn’t spoken to in over 15 years. Then, old friends. Neighbors. Teachers. Family. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of support, the generosity and the genuine concern and understanding from so many.

Some may think of money as an impersonal gift, but the donations I received were unbelievably personal. Each and every time I picked up a hospital bill, I silently thanked all of the people who donated to the fund. Even with insurance, the out-of- pocket costs of cancer shocked me. Without the help of Nicole and the kindness of those who donated, my financial circumstances would have been much bleaker and the road to recovery all the more difficult.

The creation of the Run for Carissa fundraiser helped me understand that people really do want to help. And a part of this experience was to accept their goodness with humility. As I embrace my new cancer-free life, I know I will never forget what I have been through; nor will I forget the people who helped me along the way. In whatever way I can, I will pay their goodness forward.

Whose world will you change?