Each year in October I get concerned about 2 things: the growing number of my age (my birthday is in this month), and breast cancer. Since I can only accept the former and get educated on the latter, today I will share the story of a breast cancer survivor. I have interviewed Vanessa Joy Walker, who is a breast cancer survivor, the writer of Make Room for Joy, and has a realistic and positive mindset. Let’s hear her story and learn from her experiences:
Thank you for sharing your personal journey with the readers of Sifa’s Corner. We truly appreciate it, Vanessa.
I learned to talk about cancer by doing it. That might seem simple, but it’s essential to acknowledge that doing something new is hard. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was in the middle of difficult separation from my ex-husband, I had just started a new job out of my expertise, and was separated from my closest friends and family. It would have been much easier for me to shrink into isolation and wade through the diagnosis independently, but that tactic would not help me thrive.
I prepared to talk to others about cancer by first talking to myself about it. I spent plenty of time screaming, crying, and yelling at God and my therapist! I practiced saying, “I have cancer,” out loud while staring back at myself in the mirror of my extra small Brooklyn bathroom. Sometimes it was easier to share with people I didn’t know because, in some ways, it felt like I was reinventing myself as a cancer patient — as someone who needed help.
And then, I shared it with the people that were closest to me. At first, this was difficult because I found myself wanting to comfort the people I was telling instead of letting them comfort me. I was the helper, the doer, the encourager. I did not know how to be a person in need. Asking for help was hard for me. But getting comfortable with my suffering and my own needs was a crucial step in learning how to share my story with others.
Communicating has always been one of my coping skills, and having cancer did not change this. I started making an effort to chat with everyone I came in to connect with about what I was going through. Sure, it made some people uncomfortable, but more often, it opened the door for others to share transparently with me. The more I shared, the better I got at sharing. The better I got at sharing; the more my story impacted those around me. The more comfortable I got talking about my needs with others, the easier it became to ask for help and accept help.
(Pictured below: Vanessa Joy Walker during her treatment)
Suggested read: THINK PINK: A tribute to the Breast Cancer awareness month
Faith, therapy, and plenty of Ben and Jerrys — specifically, Chubby Hubby had a lot to do with how I cared for my head, heart, and soul during the most challenging parts of my cancer journey.
My faith held me together when my pain was tearing my heart apart. I was heartbroken because of my ex-husband’s betrayal and the betrayal of my own body. Having hope for a future that I could not see kept me afloat. Knowing that I was not alone, even when I felt alone, comforted me when I needed it the most. My faith reminded me that God could use this horrible situation for good. Nourishing your soul during seasons of suffering is just as important as feeding your body.
Therapy anchored me to reality and helped me identify the irrational thoughts that often encamped on the edge of my sanity. Therapy was the accountability that I needed to get to the next week. Therapy gave me the room and permission to be ok with not being ok.
And please don’t minimize the power of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Giving myself a treat or something to look forward to after a doctor’s appointment or a tough day was vital.
Yes, and no. This question is complicated to answer because I’ve had cancer multiple times. I have experienced many crises over the years, and each time it creeps up on me, the support component looks different.
During my first diagnosis, I was away from my family and in the middle of a separation. I had to make the difficult decision to accept help from a man who had made it clear that he did not want to be married to me anymore. That was a painful but necessary choice. Often we ask for help but then get frustrated when the help shows up packaged differently than we would have liked. Accepting help from the man who betrayed me turned out to be a remarkable experience that contributed significantly to my personal growth.
As I grew up and became more confident with my journey, I found it easier to ask for help, but I still struggle with action. The one thing that I have done is surround myself with people who strive to give unconditional support. This fact means that I have fewer closer friends, but that is ok. Relationships based on a quid pro quo arrangement are not helpful during crises because suffering places you in a position of need.
Asking for what you need is important. And be prepared to realize that not everyone in your life can support someone unconditionally during a crisis, and that’s ok. But having people in my life that I can invite into my pain has proven to be an essential fixative for my most treasured relationships.
I still remind myself weekly that one of the most potent actions we can take during difficult times is to ask for help. But to do that, you first have to admit that you need help.
Suggested read: Building back confidence after breast cancer.
I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of motivation. I don’t often feel motivated. That doesn’t mean that I am not content, happy, or at peace, but it does beg the question, is motivation imperative to a life well-lived? I am not sure that I have the answer to that question right now.
I can tell you that there are many phrases and life principles that keep me calm and clear when life is chaotic. Here are the first two that come to mind:
“Love your neighbor.” The Bible – Mark 12:31 — This verse reminds me that I have something to offer the world, even when it doesn’t feel that way. I always have my love to give.
“Scatter Joy” – Ralph Waldo Emerson — When I don’t feel passionate about the day before me, I purposefully think about how I can bring joy to someone else’s doorstep. This small shift always makes a significant impact on how I approach life, work, and relationships.
More about Vanessa Joy Walker:
Vanessa Joy Walker lives up to her middle name. An adopted child, a cancer survivor, and an abuse survivor, Walker has toured the country and spoken to thousands about life’s seasons and choosing joy even in the midst of suffering. An iPEC Coach and founder/owner of GIllian Walker Management and Director of Operations at Point Made Learning, Walker thrives on helping both faith-based and secular communities and has spoken to thousands across the country as both as an Adversity Coach and with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Singers. Her book, Make Room for Joy (August 4, 2020), shows us how to find joy even when we’re in the thick of it. Brooklyn based, Vanessa currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC, and can be found singing, eating good food, and choosing joy along the way.
She can be found online on Instagram @vanessajoywalker, Facebook @vanessjoywalker, Twitter @vjoywalker.
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