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I've Learned to Embrace Vulnerability
During My Cancer Treatment

by Sarah Morrison

We can do hard things. I’ve always heard this line, but never been fully aware of what it meant to me or how it might show up in my life. In my career in leadership, I’ve been trained in positive psychology and relational intelligence, I hold a PhD, and I’m a professional coach. Through this training, I’ve learned the power of gratitude and I’ve realized that everything is perspective and that everyone has a story. The approach to much of this training is to learn, live and embed the process. Little did I know that it would come in most handy when I least expected it – when, this past summer, I was diagnosed with cancer.

I clearly remember the moment when I knew that something was wrong. I had given my doctor permission to deliver any news, good or bad, over the telephone so that I could avoid taking time off work. I was alone in my office, preparing the remarks I was going to offer at a luncheon, when she called. “Are you sitting down?” she asked, and so I had a feeling that this was not good news. My notes in front of me blurred as she said, “I’m referring you to oncology.” By the time the call was over, I had two new doctors on my medical team as well as more scans and tests to be booked. In the space of about 15 minutes, my life had changed. My priorities had suddenly shifted.

At that moment, I had a split-second decision to make: Do I go to the luncheon, or do I go home and hide under my covers and pretend that this is not happening? I was feeling a mix of fear, vulnerability and shock – it could have gone either way and I wouldn’t have blamed myself for either choice. But I chose to move forward. I chose joy. I went to the luncheon and spoke from the heart about the gratitude that I felt for each of our new faculty members at the end of their first year. Then, somehow, I finished the day, including attending my nine-year-old daughter’s jubilant evening dance recital. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and choosing to lean into each moment of that terrible yet strangely wonderful day.

I’ve chosen to keep this perspective as I move forward through appointments, treatments and all the ups and downs that come with a cancer journey. Everyone’s experience with the challenging aspects of life, including fighting a disease, is different, but I’ve made my choice and I’m embracing it. Although it’s not easy and it’s not perfect, it’s working for me.

When I choose gratitude as my lens through which to view the world, the oncology treatment centre becomes a beautiful place. Why not smile, lean into my zest for life and sense of humour and express gratitude to the incredible medical staff and volunteers at the hospital? Why not choose encounters with other patients as they come up to share stories? Why not dress up for my chemotherapy treatments? This last decision has allowed me to share anecdotes with nurses about where to find great outfits and other shopping tips. To me, building relationships and connections mean everything.

But it’s not always easy. The biggest emotional challenge that I had in the last few months was telling my two preteen daughters that I had been diagnosed with cancer. Somehow, I got through it with the support of my partner and by framing the conversation in love.

I’ve been fortunate to meet others who have helped me embrace this affirmative mindset. The friend of a colleague has been battling cancer for more than 20 years after being given a slim chance of survival. He is a ray of light! He is also an inspiration as he chooses to give back by reaching out to others, like me, who are early along in their journey and dealing with the emotional weight of this disease.

It’s funny how the people we meet and forge connections with along the journey can be our best sources of inspiration and advice. Practising gratitude, embracing resilience, leaning into hope and love, and choosing joy are my main emotional tools right now. This is not unicorns and rainbows though; this is what works for me and I refuse to curl up inwardly.

There’s something powerful about the idea of acceptance and embracing vulnerability. I cannot control my diagnosis, but I can control my reactions, my mindset, and how I show up each day. So, I’m choosing to lean in with grace, gratitude and strength.

This is living with cancer for me. We can do hard things – I’m living proof.

Dr. Sarah Morrison lives in Mississauga, Ont.


The Globe and Mail, Published January 8, 2024

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