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A cancer survivor's thanks
Amanda Enayati poses with her older brother in a photograph from their childhood.
November 23rd, 2011
07:01 AM ET

A cancer survivor's thanks

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

In two weeks I am going into surgery to reconstruct my right breast, which I lost to late-stage breast cancer four and a half years ago. The tumor was the size of a baby Godzilla. “Nine centimeters!” I remember my mother wailing. “Your entire breast isn’t nine centimeters!”

When the surgeons performed the mastectomy in 2007, they put in an expander - like a placeholder - to stretch out the skin in preparation for an implant. Back then the plastic surgeon said I had to wait something like three to six months for my skin and body to recover from chemo and radiation before I could have the reconstruction.

I was dying to get back to “normal” and so I used every Jedi mind trick I knew to convince the surgeon to operate faster. I even resorted to my old Iranian negotiation tactic of asking the same question over and over again using slightly different words until the person just breaks down from mental exhaustion. Alas, the Stanford surgeon was an ex-New Yorker. He prevailed.

The expander under my skin was low maintenance and I looked mostly normal in clothes, and so pretty soon the breast itself became beside the point. But early this year, during my one of my regular check-ins, my beloved oncologist Dr. Guardino grabbed both my hands in hers and looked me square in the eyes.

“It’s time,” she said. “Schedule the reconstruction.”

Cancer is a game changer. It changes you physically, emotionally. It changes the way you see things and people and relationships. It literally leaves an imprint on your brain.

On my worst days I waged a war against cancer.

On my worst days I raged about the injustice, the waste, the why, the how.

On my worst days I allowed the disease to define me.

On my very worst days and nights I bobbed up and down in dark oceans of fear with no land in sight.

But on my best days...

On my best days I gave thanks.

Not for being sick. Not for losing a part of my body. But for life itself. And for all the things I learned.

They were many and they came to me piecemeal, as in the story of the old wise men who examined the elephant in the dark, each describing a different part of the animal. Eventually I managed to put the pieces together and to recognize them for what they were.

And here’s what I learned:

You go through life thinking you know some things, like what “healthy” means. Then one day the bottom falls out from under you and there you are, arms in the air, plunging like Alice down the rabbit hole. And that’s when you realize that nothing was as it had seemed. I learned to assume nothing and to question everything. I learned you must see through your own eyes and not through the eyes of others.

I lived through a virtual encyclopedia of tragedy in my first three decades - revolution, dysfunction, terrorism and disease - before I finally learned that there is no such thing as control.

I still struggle to be comfortable with uncertainty, but I have finally made peace with it. Maybe someday I will even embrace it.

I learned that happiness in the face of adversity is revolutionary and that optimism makes you more powerful.

“What are you waiting for, lovey?” my friend Michele Mason would always ask me. I’m not sure what I was waiting for, but I spent too many years hand-wringing over my dreams. It was illness that finally pushed me over the cliff.

“If not now, then maybe never,” is what I recall thinking. I learned from Michele that healing may not be so much about getting better as it is about letting go of everything that isn’t you and finally becoming who you are. And when I squared off with death, I learned that there is no such thing as too late.

I learned you never stop missing the dear ones who left too soon. I learned that one after I lost Michele to cancer in August. I still think of you every day, beautiful friend. I sense you walking with me, even now.

With my hair, my eyebrows and my lashes gone, my body near-wasted, every one of my masks stripped away, all I felt was love. All I desired was unity. All those things I had worried about over the years, raged about, complained of, fallen out over - all seemed completely worthless and inconsequential.

In the end, I learned that love is tangible and that it is the foundation of everything worthwhile. And if I had to go on to the next world, love was the only possession I wished to take along.

In my darkest hours, what I cherished most were not the fireworks moments of my life, but the most pedestrian: sitting together on a park bench in the warm sun, talks with my children during car rides back and forth to school, spontaneous hugs.

But time passes and amnesia sets in, dimming those bursts of clarity. Sometimes these days I find myself once again sleepwalking through the everyday and obsessing about the dramatic.

But this moment is the prize.

I know this. And I don’t want to forget.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Filed under: Cancer • Stress

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Susan Mosby

    Well said and oh so true on so many levels......Feeling loved and loving is so very powerful.....Happy Thanksgiving....we truly are blessed....

    November 23, 2011 at 08:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Brenda

    you are so right. cancer changes everything. i lost my husband to it two months ago. the pain is real, but so is the memory of the time we shared while he was sick. the love. the quiet moments. we were given the chance to realize what is important in life, as you were.

    November 23, 2011 at 08:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Heather

      Brenda- I am sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. May you and your family have a blessed Thanksgiving.

      November 23, 2011 at 09:39 | Report abuse |
  3. MKM

    You are so right – when you or a loved one go through a lengthy battle with cancer, you realize that the most precious thing in the world is simple, normal life. Taking a walk, eating a meal together, chatting before you go to sleep – those are wonderful moments that most of us don't appreciate until they are no longer there. And if you win that battle, and get your normal life back, you truly appreciate every single normal day! In each moment, there is so much to be thankful for.

    November 23, 2011 at 09:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. NCK

    Thank you so much for this article! Whether you are going through Cancer, Lupus or some other debilitating disease, it's so important to remember what is really important when you are going through the dark periods...especially as you are losing hair and in pain. Thank you for putting what is truly valuable into perspective. Great article!

    November 23, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Brittany

    Such a beautifully written story. Thank you for touching my soul this morning by speaking from the heart.

    November 23, 2011 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Pat

    Beautifully said, I can relate so well to your thoughts, especially the accepting of the uncertainty. Powerful message and one I truly needed to see today. Thanks very much.

    November 23, 2011 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. NJT

    Thank you Amanda.

    November 23, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Packy

    I am a cancer survivor myself, and this is a beautiful story! Happy Thanksgiving.

    November 23, 2011 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. BIll

    So beautifully written – and powerful reminder of what we should grateful for. Thank you for sharing.

    November 23, 2011 at 11:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Amy

    Thank you for your story. My fiance is a testicular cancer survivor and he understands that 'waging war.' We are so grateful that he is 1 year in remission and the future is looking good! I am grateful for your health as well. We are all so small and so precious. Time is all we have. And the great thing is, time is free. We just need to learn to make the most of it with those we love.

    November 23, 2011 at 11:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Elizabeth

    My husband has cancer, and somebody told me that I could have the American Cancer Society take him to his chemo therapy. Well, I like going; we chat a lot on the chemo days, it helps him to feel a bit better, and we just feel close. We haven't been this close in years. It's those little things that I really like. There are days when I wish our friends wouldn't be so upset that they pick fights; they promised to help but they aren't doing it. But it's their loss; I just feel closer and closer to my husband, and I am very grateful for this time. And he has not gotten worse; that's all we can hope for at this time. I wish you the most blessed and joyous Thanksgiving, and I pray for peace in the whole world, starting at everybody's home.

    November 23, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Marta

    So beautifully written. Thank you for putting how I feel into words. Happy Thanksgiving.

    November 23, 2011 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sandy Wood

    May God continue to encourage you. This is well written and has blessed me. We take a lot for granted in life. My sister had breast cancer that took her out within 2 years at a very young age. Thanksgiving is more than the turkey and it is a daily thing for health, family, etc. You are loved and appreciated. Keep up the winning spirit.

    November 23, 2011 at 12:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Kalli Swanson

    Absolutely beautiful. If only we could all have that clarity without the pain of diagnosis and illness. Thanks for sharing. Your writing is stunning.

    November 23, 2011 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Darrell Smith

    I just finished my book, and West Bow press, now has it in production dept. Maybe a December release date: " After the Cancer, What Now?" And today I just read and was humbled by your post. I endured so many of the things you spoke about, but in my book, clearly, I failed to even come close to the way you presented my own thoughts and emotions, as a 2x cancer survivor. I only wish I had your ability to relate the feelings into words, in the way that you have. You're most inspiring; thank you and may God bless you. @DarrellSmithsr

    November 23, 2011 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Nak

    What a touching entry. I have been through what you have been through and understand what you mean about the simple moments. This experience makes you want to do whatever you can to get the most out of life and spend that time with people that you love. Happy Thanksgiving!

    November 23, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. charlotte

    My mum is a cancer survive 4 3 years now.I thk GOD becoz we nid her on dat thx giving table.am ecouraging all those with the diesease 2 be positive and forced hppy thanksgiving!

    November 23, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Elizabeth

    Wow, what a powerful article. I too was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had surgery, chemo, and radiation. Yes there were very dark days going through this, and I too still fear all the what if's. Thank you for the great article that puts it all into perspective. There is nothing in this world that is important than, loving and being loved. it is too bad that sickness has to hit us in the face to really understand that. I am Thankful everyday that I can share my love with my family. Thank you

    November 23, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Jasmine

    This was wonderfully profound and it touched my soul. Thank you for writing and sharing this with all of us. Whether it is cancer or any other tragedy that has touched all of our lives, we can learn so much from seeing your perspective.

    November 23, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Janaki

    Have always enjoyed your posts. This one is absolutely the best – most inspiring and humbling. Love or hatred is all one can carry. The choice is clear. Thank for sharing. Wishing you and your family many many more happy thanksgivings.

    November 23, 2011 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Nana

    Dearheart, my brother was diagnosed with HIV at age 23 in 1982. 12 years later, 4 days after his 35th birthday and about 6 months before they figured out the good drugs, he was gone. He fought the good fight until there was no fight left, but the beginning of his battle was to first grieve for and then release the young man he had expected to be–healthy, strong, vigorous, gorgeous. It was only after he released healthy Steve that he was able to embrace the Steve he was–and was becoming. We who loved him had to do the same thing. The Steve we had envisioned sharing our lives, the Steve we'd expected to grow old with (so we could scandalize my grandchildren with tales of our wild youths) had to be released so that this new strong, scared, fragile, angry, compassionate, passionate Steve could be embraced without hesitation. He did not become a saint or a wise man. He still made mistakes. His rage against dying made him furious. But he was able to throw himself into being New Steve well enough to truly understand what this journey had given him–and us.

    Hang in there, dearheart. It's worth the fight and we're rooting for you 🙂

    November 24, 2011 at 03:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Nana

    Dearheart, my brother was diagnosed with HIV at age 23 in 1982. 12 years later, 4 days after his 35th birthday and about 6 months before they figured out the good drugs, he was gone. He fought the good fight until there was no fight left, but the beginning of his battle was to first grieve for and then release the young man he had expected to be–healthy, strong, vigorous, gorgeous. It was only after he released healthy Steve that he was able to embrace the Steve he was–and was becoming. We who loved him had to do the same thing. The Steve we had envisioned sharing our lives, the Steve we'd expected to grow old with (so we could scandalize my grandchildren with tales of our wild youths) had to be released so that this new strong, scared, fragile, angry, compassionate, passionate Steve could be embraced without hesitation. He did not become a saint or a wise man. He still made mistakes. His rage against dying made him furious. But he was able to throw himself into being New Steve well enough to truly understand what this journey had given him–and us.

    November 24, 2011 at 03:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Mdb52

    I have printed this beautiful article so I can read it during my dark hours and uplift my soul. Thank you for your gifted writing on this glorious Thanksgiving Day!

    November 24, 2011 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Ronald Pies MD

    A beautiful, brave and inspiring paean to life–thank you! –Ronald Pies MD

    November 24, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. BooHoo

    Another New York female trying to find her "true self" in Manhatten, the Center of the Universe. Blah, blah, blah.

    November 24, 2011 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Juan R.. PALOMO

    Ive read this about eight times now and each time I find a new jewel to relish. I hope all these wonderful comments encourage you to keep writing and loving and living. Thank you.

    November 25, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Mariana Zavala

    I took my brother's word that this would be enlightening and it was. Thank you Amanda. What I am experiencing is so insignificant compared to yours. May God bless you.

    November 26, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Nina

    I hope you had a wonderful thanksgiving! I love your writing <3

    November 29, 2011 at 19:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. L

    Thank you for encapsulating in words what I have been going through and struggling to properly define for the past 6 months. We walk a hard road, but the hands that hold ours along the way and the incredibly strong person that we discover within are the secret blessings of this disease.

    November 30, 2011 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Deb Konrad

    Thanks you for this very uplifting piece! Having been out of town for the holiday, I am just now getting to going through all the e-mail on my computer, a friend sent me this link. I am a survivor of NHL a incurable form of blood cancer, and after 2+ years of treatment protocal I am remission. The nature of my disease is that it will come back, but with response to treatment I could live a very long time, going in and out of treatment along the way. The uncertainty has at times, been overwhelming, but I too am learning to live with it, after all, no one is really certain how long he or she has on this earth. I am trying to focus on the fact that each day ANY of us opens our eyes, is indeed a gift...

    November 30, 2011 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Trikkerguy

    I was diagnosed with an aggresive form of prostate cancer in 05. Completed all treatments, during which time I continued to workout, albeit a few weeks off after seed surgery. Workouts consisted of Trikking and weights, the trikking reduces anxiety along with a great full body workout, the weights keeps the muscles tuned up, or as much as they can be for a 74 year old. I didn't feel sorry for myself, always stayed positive.

    December 3, 2011 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Stephanie weber

    I too am a cancer survivor. I always looked as life as a gift, and now I not only look at is as a gift but a gift that keeps on giving.... helping other people like you did in this article to see life for the beauty, the memories we make with family and friends. For me, Life is just the good memories we make while we are all trying to make a living and survive!
    My cancer was caught early so I was one of the lucky ones so far...so good. That being said...you always wonder why if you did all the right things, dont have a family history of the cance that you got, why you got it in the first place. I wonder but it never gets me down.I too never feel sorry for myself...it is such a waste of time.

    January 22, 2012 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
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  34. Kristen Caven

    I loved Michele Mason, too! I quoted her in my book, The Bullying Antidote (www.zorgos.wordpress.com). "What are you waiting for, Lovey?" She was amazing.

    September 4, 2014 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.