By: Serenity Shanklin (“Redwood”)
On the eve of my 35th birthday, I had no idea that my world was about to be flipped upside down and shaken like a snow globe. All of the little things that I felt secure about were all out of place. Like anyone who is young and has a cancer diagnosis, I had instantly leapt out of the shelter of youth. I went from being 34 to 54 overnight.
A few years later, after everything I’ve been through to survive, my illusions about life are gone and I’ve had no choice but to grow up. At first I was simply mortified about what had happened to my body after an extremely invasive and painful surgery that left me with large scars externally and a Frankenstein digestive system that made socializing over food embarrassing. I worried about what I would look like and who would want to date me. I was self-conscious about what I’d been through, my fatigue, and how I was perceived at work. Unfortunately, none of this was misplaced.
Although I was supported and loved by many people, I was judged at work and I lost some friendships. Eventually, I realized that the few people that really loved me and thought that I was awesome for being a cancer survivor were the only people that mattered. I accepted love from a man who is supportive instead of chasing after men that were unreliable. I was discriminated against at work for the last time and I had the guts stand up for myself. I’ve made some really wonderful changes in my life, just in case, life really is short, I’m finally living a life for me. I hate cancer, but this is pretty liberating.
Surviving cancer takes everything you have. At first, I was so exhausted that I had to evaluate the effort anything would take. For instance, if I washed my hair I would not be able to do much for the rest of the day. That way of thinking transcended into everyday life, friendships, work, and activities. Lots of things that I used to enjoy just didn’t make the cut anymore and I couldn’t afford to feel apologetic about it. I had to do things that had a big payback if I was going to do them at all.
So, after my gastric surgery, I decided to do something I never would have done before. I signed up to fly really far away from home by myself, and go hang out with a bunch of complete strangers on surf boards [Camp Koru] in Maui. This gave me something to look forward to as I healed from my surgery, and it motivated me to get stronger so I could do it. I met witty and creative survivors. We had the opportunity to learn about the healing strength of the ocean at Surf Club Maui. We chased after sea turtles on paddle boards, held impromptu photo shoots on the beach, ate shave ice, and slept under the stars. I made a best friend. I felt empowered and gained a new sense of hope. The experience at Camp Koru continues to inspire me and set a new bar for how I want to experience the rest of my life. Taking risks on things that make you happy is what life is all about.