This is our new series featuring a collection of narratives and photographs from the book New Beginnings: The Triumph of 120 Survivors by photographer, author and cancer survivor Bill Aron.
Cancer Survivor: Rebecca Gifford – Writer; Diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 1994, Recurrence, 1995
I was living in Cincinnati right after college when I was diagnosed with lymphoma. All I heard in my head was, “You’re 22 and you have cancer.” How do you process that? I did chemotherapy and radiation, but a year later it re-infested in my kidney, so I had to endure another round of chemo and a bone marrow transplant. After that, I didn’t have a focus anymore. There was no way to reason it all out. At the time, that bothered me a lot.
Everyone around me was so happy that I got through the treatments and could get back to normal. They didn’t realize that there was no more normal. I was young and still trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. Then cancer changed everything. From then on, I was looking through a different-colored window because my perspective and direction dramatically shifted.
The greatest initial impact was that I became much less fearful of risk. I had conquered something big, so I was willing to do things that were not necessarily comfortable for me or for the people around me. I just stood up and said, “I want to become a writer,” moved to New York City, and joined a group of struggling artists. I never imagined doing that before cancer.
Romantically, however, I felt like damaged goods. Cancer is the ultimate conversation stopper. At that age, hardly anyone you date has dealt with mortality. When do you tell them that you had cancer and can’t have children? Most people in their 20s slowly become more comfortable with their identities, but something like this will quickly make you come of age.
My diagnosis presented me with the clarity I needed to see the path I was supposed to be on, and my survival gave me the courage to follow that path. I was given the opportunity to live this life more fully, in a way that is probably very different than it would have been. I’m happy, and I greet both the challenges and the opportunities life brings.
My husband and I adopted a beautiful child, and our little family has moved all over the country with the inherent freedom and strength to go where life takes us. My life doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations, but that matters so much less than it used to. My parents used to want me to have a job they could explain and a title they could understand. But when my book came out (Cancer Happens: Coming of Age with Cancer), they understood what I do and why.
Life is about so much more than traditional success. It’s about joy, about living our soul’s purpose, and about contributing to the greater good. I live every moment with that in mind.