A little over nine years ago, I was a self-described workaholic. I was a senior merchandise planner for a large department store working anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day. I didn’t live with regrets and thought I had it all. However, I let my job control me, and it always came first. At 32 years old, I was single with no children, and I only had to answer to myself.
Over the years, I made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish before I died—a bucket list of sorts. To be honest, I wasn’t very proactive, so I figured most of my bucket list items wouldn’t happen. Anyway, dreaming was fun. I thought about jumping out of a plane just to see what it would be like to fly. I didn’t, because I was too scared and quite honestly too lazy to research how or where I could do it. I wanted to take a year off from my job and travel the entire world. I didn’t do it because work was more important to me, and I figured I couldn’t find the time to go. In general, I believed there would always be a “someday” in which I’d find the time to chase after my bucket list. Then the one thing I would never put on my list happened: I was diagnosed with cancer.
A cancer diagnosis throws a curve into your life like no other. Everything you were working on stops with a thud so loud the ringing in your ears can last a lifetime. I was diligent about self-exams, so I knew my breasts well, but I found my lump by accident—scratching a random itch on the top of my breast. It didn’t worry me that much. I took note of it and figured I would watch it and see if it started to grow.
As I carried on with my life, I would feel the lump, still there, but not changing. A few months later, I had my annual exam. My doctor was not too concerned as younger women tend to have lumpy breasts. She sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound. Both came back inconclusive. That’s when my fear began to grow. I was sent to a breast surgeon who did a biopsy. Again, the results didn’t scream cancer. The findings were nothing more than abnormal cells. I figured I was home free and had nothing more than a cyst that needed to be removed, but when the lump was removed, the cancer was found underneath, in a place where the biopsy had not reached.
I was not ready for my life to be over. I was still young enough to say I had my whole life ahead of me. I wasn’t married and didn’t have children yet. I was also ignorant of the fact that breast cancer could happen at such a young age. Wasn’t this an older woman’s disease? But cancer doesn’t discriminate by age.
I’m a planner by nature, so I did well with my treatment. I got a big calendar and marked out every appointment, every surgery, and every chemotherapy treatment. Every morning, I woke up and crossed one day off that calendar. It made me feel like I had control of something since I didn’t have control over cancer itself. I began planning my cancerversary. Looking forward to something was the only way I knew how to cope.
As I sat in that chemo chair week after week, I had plenty of time to reflect on my life. Cancer had never been part of the equation, of course, but now that it was, I knew I had to make some changes to my life. I started thinking about my bucket list, and I realized that if I didn’t start attacking that list, I might never get the chance. At that point, I still didn’t have a plan, but my list was in the forefront of my mind. After six months of grueling chemo treatments, bilateral mastectomies, and reconstruction surgeries, I was ready to figure out how to live again.
Two years later, I was navigating the cancer survivorship world, which was more difficult than I anticipated. Going through cancer treatment itself is the easy part—I received binders of information from my medical team, had a substantial number of meetings of what to expect, and I was always surrounded by people who could answer my questions. During treatment, I was in the doctor’s office at least every other week. When I graduated to the cancer survivorship world, everyone patted me on the back and told me congratulations for making it through chemo. Then I was sent back to my old life. I felt like I was standing in front of a fork in the road with no direction, scratching my bald head thinking, “Now what?”
It was during this confusing time that I received a call from my sister-at-heart. We are not related by blood, but we are sisters in every other way. We grew up across the street from each other our whole lives. When my family moved to the next neighborhood over, so did hers. Our families were inseparable. When Colleen called me with her news, I couldn’t believe we would do something like this together: fight cancer.
Colleen was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at 27 years old. She went through the same cancer-related decisions as me. And like me, she came out on the other side having kicked cancer’s you-know-what. Throughout our cancer journeys, our bond grew. Each one of us was a survivor, and each one of us was the friend dealing with the turmoil of a friend going through cancer. Under the umbrella of cancer survivorship, we were in the same place, too.
By 2015, we both felt like we were getting our lives back in order. Our physical scars were healing nicely. But mentally, we were still trying to recover from what cancer had stolen from us: our youth. Colleen said she wanted to do something different in the new year. The challenge she had in mind? To do something you have never done, every day for a year. I decided to join the challenge and immediately began brainstorming. As I wrote everything down, I realized just how much I hadn’t yet done in my life. It was a bit overwhelming in a good but scary way. Cancer could have robbed me of these experiences.
Colleen and I sat at Starbucks with lists in hand, going back and forth about what we wanted to do. We tend to think alike, so without even trying, we had some of the same items on our lists. We discussed the differences, too. Learning to hula hoop, playing hopscotch, trying green chai tea, and kickboxing were added to the list. The goal was to do whatever we could together, but also take time for solo activities.
Some of the items on our lists mirrored anyone’s bucket list. We wanted to travel. We contemplated jumping out of a plane. We wanted to try new foods like squid or Brussels sprouts. When you get the chance to write down everything you want to do, you realize how much opportunity there is in the world, big and small. We called our adventure “Life It Up 365,” and so it began.
Colleen celebrated the new year in Hawaii, a dream of hers. I kicked off the new year by eating a pomegranate. I read somewhere that eating a pomegranate on New Year’s Day brings good luck for the year. It seemed like a logical way to kick off day one, so I decided to give it a go. After struggling with opening the pomegranate, I realized why I’d never tried one—it’s not that easy to eat. I had to watch YouTube videos and look up “how-tos” just to get started. There is soaking involved and scraping out of seeds before you can grab a taste. It was a much bigger challenge than I anticipated, but I must say it was worth the work and tasted quite delicious.
We continued with big and small “firsts.” I learned to tie a tie. I ate octopus. I threw boiling water in freezing cold air because I had no idea what would happen. Colleen learned to surf and started composting. We both did a polar plunge in our hometown of Chicago, which might have been one of the craziest (and most exhilarating) things I have ever done. We took a trip to Ireland. Both our families have ties to Ireland, so it was a dream for us to see the beautiful country of our roots. We went with our parents on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
The best part of Life It Up 365, aside from the daily firsts, was making a list. There is so much we don’t accomplish in our lives, regardless of cancer. It’s human nature to get bogged down with day-to-day life activities such as working, going to school, and taking care of our families. However, we tend to miss all of the adventures life has to offer. Our cancer diagnoses were the wake-up call. We were both chugging through our days without giving any of it a second glance. We talked all the time about the stuff we wanted to do. Someday, we said. But we never gave those thoughts any consideration or any strategy. I am not sure they would have happened at all if we had not been diagnosed with cancer.
Life It Up 365 lasted one year. However, it still lives on in Colleen and me every day. We always talk about what we are going to do next—big and small—and figure out ways to get them done. Colleen joined “Hustle Up The Hancock” in Chicago and climbed 94 flights of stairs. This past summer, I took a trip to Australia—the number one thing on my bucket list. Whenever we get together, Colleen and I always try to find a new restaurant in the city to try. During Life It Up 365, Colleen realized her life calling was not being fulfilled, so she quit her job, went back to school, and studied to become a nurse, something she realized she wanted to do after she got sick. As for me, I also quit my job, moved back to Chicago, and now I travel the world for work. Cancer placed me on a road I always dreamed about, but never had enough courage or momentum to pursue. Colleen and I finally took action in our lives and started truly living them. Cancer was the trigger, but Life It Up 365 was the gas.
Cancer happens. You never plan for it, and no one wants it to happen. What can one do with a cancer diagnosis? We were both under 35 when cancer came knocking. It could have stolen everything from us, but we refused to let it. Instead, we decided to finally get out and live the lives we fought so hard to keep.
Dana Stewart is the founder of The Dragonfly Angel Society, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people in the world of cancer survivorship.