“My Voice” by Heather Dziczek

Heather Dziczek - 'Survivor'

I was 31 years old, working out at the gym – something I had finally started doing regularly about 10 months earlier after a largely sedentary life – and had some trouble breathing.  While this wasn’t normal for me, it was easy to dismiss since I was exercising.  A few days later, when I had trouble breathing just sitting still, I couldn’t dismiss it.  I called my PCP and made an appointment for the following Monday afternoon.

The doctor said it was allergies, adult-onset asthma, or something in my lungs that shouldn’t be there.  She gave me an inhaler and orders for a chest x-ray “just in case.”  That evening, I had my last appointment with my personal trainer.  “Are you OK?  You don’t look so good.”

Tuesday, I had even more trouble breathing and went for my chest x-ray.

Wednesday was worse yet, and I believed that if I didn’t get help right away, I wouldn’t wake up on Thursday.  The doctor called and said there were “some concerns” with my x-ray.  After difficulty scheduling a CT scan, she recommended going to the ER.

At the hospital, they took another chest x-ray (still “some concerns”), did a CT scan, and came in to tell me that it looked like non-Hodgkins, they’d get me a room.

“Non-Hodgkins?  Is that cancer?”

That diagnosis turned out to be wrong – a biopsy revealed that it was Hodgkins lymphoma.

The breathing problem – which is what showed on the x-rays – had been fluid collecting around my lungs and crushing them.  They took two liters of fluid out of my right side (I’m 5’4”!!) and almost two more liters a week later.

I began chemo and, relative to many I have witnessed or heard about, it wasn’t too bad.  Understand, please, that this is like saying I got run over by a dump truck, but at least it wasn’t a semi.  My strong body turned soft and weak but my resiliency remained.  My husband and mom freaked out, the counselor at the hospital thought I was in denial, but I continued to visualize the chemo burning away the huge tumor in my chest.  Only two months into chemo, I had a negative PET scan.  Regardless, chemo continued for six months.

A month after chemo ended, 3.5 weeks of radiation ensued, and the treatment portion of the journey was over.

I am much more dedicated to my body than I was before cancer – not to be magazine- or runway-ready, but to be healthy.  I have become vegetarian; stopped consuming artificial sweeteners and HFCS; stopped buying, storing, or cooking food or drink in plastics; starting buying more organic produce; starting wearing sunscreen every day (“Melanoma is a common secondary cancer,” might be the most influential sentence my oncologist spoke to me).

I am back on the exercise wagon, working out on average six days per week.  Almost two years to the day of my diagnosis, I completed my first triathlon.  Four months later, I completed another.  Despite my intense training, my body is still not as strong as it used to be, but I have faith that as long as I keep working, it will get there.

I am studying to become a certified personal trainer and have hopes of one day opening a small studio where I can help fellow cancer survivors reclaim their bodies from the hell of chemotherapy and radiation.

In the mean time, survivorship is about living every day.  It’s about taking advantage of the health and vitality I am lucky enough to have regained.  It’s about nurturing relationships with people who are important to me.  It’s about humility and asking for help when I need it.  It’s about enjoying a beautiful sunset or a hike on a warm morning.  It’s about taking care of my inner self, my mind and spirit.  I have begun cleaning out my house, getting rid of the physical clutter that creates mental and emotional clutter.

Many people have told me that I am inspiring, but I most appreciate those who make changes in their lives.  That, to me, is true inspiration.

Some days, I want to broadcast to the world: “Hey!  I am a cancer survivor!”  Some days, I want the world to celebrate that I’m still in it.  But most often, I feel like the best testament to survivorship is just living simply and joyfully.