A Personal Story of Triumph

By Leigh Z.

“You have cancer”.

Three little words that totally changed my life. I was 39 years old and a lump I had found in my breast, that everyone said was nothing, turned out to be something. There was no history of cancer in my family. I never knew anyone with breast cancer. The first thought you have when you hear those three little words is “I am going to die”.  Fortunately I caught my cancer early and have been in remission since 2010.  Many women are not as lucky and it is for them I share my story.

When I was a child I was fearless. I was a Texas transplant growing up in the mountains of Colorado with rivers and fields and wilderness as my backyard. I had a vivid imagination and loved getting dirty. I was free and curious and open to what the world had to show me. Then I got older. Moved back to Texas. Lived in the big city where concrete replaced fields and buildings replaced mountains. And I started to be afraid of things. I started to care more about what other people thought about me than what I thought about myself. And as the years went by I lost who I once was and but for the unconditional love of my amazing and strong mother, my story could have ended a long time ago.

I had a great time in my 20’s and 30’s. Too much drinking probably and a pack a day smoking habit that started at 16. I unexpectedly lost my father during those years. Started and ended a lot of relationships. Somehow managed to get an undergrad and a master’s degree in between the parties and fun times with my friends and a million countless stupid decisions that could have forked my path into a really dark place. I spent so much time trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be that I never stopped to remember that I already knew the answer.

I had cancer. And it made me finally stop and think about what I wanted my life to be. I got a second chance. Many women with this awful disease do not. Buddha said “the trouble is, you think you have time”. I can always make more money. I only get so much time. So the question became what do I want to do with my time that is MEANINGFUL. Cancer gave me the gift of realization. That I get but one life and I should probably start trying to do a little bit more with it.

I finished cancer treatment. I quit smoking cold turkey after 25 years. I bought a house. I changed jobs and while I made less money, I gave up the high stress positions I had for years while running foster care and adoption agencies. I weeded the garden of my life and rid myself of a lot of things that were negative or toxic or just didn’t work or make me happy anymore. I thought about what my 8 year old self would say to my 40 something year old self and what I heard was “Stop being so scared all the time”.  I needed to be brave again like that 8 year old running through the mountains of Colorado. Easier said than done I know, but it all starts with a step. Just one step. One small change that turned into a bigger change that led to more steps. And soon I found myself once again being the person that I had always been but that somehow got lost along the way.

My life has been pretty great since I got cancer. I am very mindful of the fact that I got a second chance when so many have not. I try to be more aware of time and how I choose to spend it. I started volunteering with the Breast Cancer Resource Center here in Central Texas and have made amazing friendships with women who have been or still are fighting this disease. I took up distance running two years ago and went from never running AT ALL to finishing the Houston Marathon in January 2018. I started hiking again and have gone to numerous National Parks and basked in the mountains again which make my soul smile. Instead of waiting to find someone to travel with me, I found AdventureWomen, and decided the only person holding me back from taking amazing and challenging trips was me. Each time I do something new takes me one more step out of my comfort zone. When people ask me why I do some of the things I do now I tell them “because I can”.

I love inspirational quotes. They help me get up and get moving when things are hard so I would like to close with two of my favorites. If you are ever in Austin, TX drop me a line and I will show you what a sunset looks like from the Texas Hill Country. And till then, be kind to yourself.

Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful”. – Joshua J Marine

“There will come a day when I cannot do this. TODAY is not that day.” – Unknown