Finding Purpose During Cancer: A Survivor’s Story

Rachael Kearney is an esophageal cancer survivor living in Manchester, England. After receiving her cancer diagnosis, Rachael started a website and podcast called Call On Courage, which features conversations connected to courage, starting over, and overcoming. You can follow Rachael on Instagram.

I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about a year ago. You might guess that I would have accepted my cancer diagnosis by now, more than 12 months later. But my diagnosis covers a multitude of changes and transformations. It covers parts of my organs being removed and reshaped and adjusting to a new stomach. It covers my new relationship with food: hunger being taken out of the equation, the nonplussed way I look at a slice of melting pizza now, and the changes to the social life I’d cultivated through food, like cooking for other people and watching foodie TV. It even covers the act of eating and the worries that now come along with it: How will I swallow this piece of food? Should I be trying to avoid that in public? Do I risk eating that alone?

The further away I get from my initial diagnosis, the more I find new discoveries and layers of acceptance. I think that’s the key word here: acceptance. Acceptance and mini victories have become the cornerstones of my life with cancer.

Adjusting to life after cancer surgery

To remove the tumor in my esophagus, I needed to undergo a type of surgery called an esophagectomy, which included reshaping my stomach. Where my stomach was once shaped like a bowl, it is now shaped like a tube. Because of this, I now need to follow a liquid or puréed food diet. The most obvious change I noticed right after my surgery was how my ability to swallow has changed; I get the sense that things won’t go down if they’re too chunky or textured. 

Luckily, each month after surgery, things are incrementally better. And one big thing I’m gaining with time is trust: trust with my body and trust with myself, which is huge. Recently, I had chopped fruit for my breakfast with yogurt. I no longer need to blitz every scrap of food down to total mush in my blender. I feel stronger, and I’m adapting to my body much better now.

I’m not someone who glosses over the fact that my cancer was treatable. The cancer hadn’t metastasized or gone into my stomach, and that’s something I’ll be forever grateful for. It’s hard to even begin to express the relief that I was able to have chemotherapy and surgery. My cancer diagnosis was treatable! I remind myself of that nearly every day. And that’s cause for feeling like I’m on a winning streak right there. 

Reconsidering my relationship with alcohol

When I received my esophageal cancer diagnosis, I was told it was rare, especially for women in my age group. I learned that it mainly affected people over 65 years of age and that men are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop the disease than women. I also learned that smoking and drinking alcohol can increase your risk for esophageal cancer. Because of this, I decided to reconsider my relationship with alcohol. This isn’t everyone’s cancer story, and I still personally think red wine can be medicinal! But it was my physical therapist who suggested I cut out alcohol because of the other medications I was taking.

I’ll admit that I was pretty reluctant to cut out alcohol, and I was skeptical that it would make any difference. But these days, after making the change, I feel more clear-headed, less anxious, and have more energy in general. And that’s after this big, life-changing surgery! Cutting out alcohol isn’t for everyone, but I found many benefits to doing so.

Learning what actually matters to me

After receiving my cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment, I’ve narrowed down the things that have helped move my recovery forward:

1: Connection

I believe human connection is in our DNA. When I was in the throes of being very ill, connection became myopic. I needed my nearest and dearest to be close by and to help me through. I’m so fortunate I have people like my family nearby. They were able to take me to treatment, pick me up from chemotherapy, and eat out with me before I had my surgery. Ironically, when my symptoms were at their worst, people wanted to come really close who were difficult to give updates to, just because we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It’s hard to give real, honest updates when I was feeling so poorly around the clock.

I’ve found that there is a limited amount of emotional energy I’m able to give during recovery. One of the loveliest text messages I have received is from a friend saying, “Tell me exactly what you need. Do you want distractions and fun? Do you need things from home? Do you want books and an iPad? Tell me what you need when you know.” That level of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes was so appreciated. For many, cancer is too hard to do alone.

2: Purpose

If there has been one thing that crystalized for me through this whole messy saga, it’s been my purpose—my “why.” Not “why me?” or “Why cancer?,” even though at times those are perfectly reasonable questions to ask. More, “Why this experience on top of the other challenges I had before cancer?” I’d experienced burnout and breaking up with workaholism. But after my cancer diagnosis, my “why” became focused on courage. I don’t think of myself as courageous, but I became hungry for people’s stories about courage, especially the ones I could learn from firsthand; they’re the most potent.

So, I started a website and podcast focused on finding those stories. And the creativity provided through those outlets has dovetailed into me establishing a new purpose: dreaming, researching, and telling stories about courage and overcoming. That, for me, will be ongoing work. But the wonderful news is that my cancer diagnosis and finding my new purpose has changed my view of life. I’m more present and realize that life isn’t just precious, but potent with purpose, too, so long as I’m prepared to lean into and embrace everything this diagnosis has thrown at me.

The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.

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