Cancer allowed me to slow down, listen to my body, and reconnect with my voice. When confronted with the impermanence of life, all that remained was peace and self acceptance. That sense of clarity and peace continues to empower me to live a wholehearted purposeful life.
It’s hard to identify what my first symptom of cancer was. In April of 2020, I noticed a bald spot on my head. My dermatologist determined it was stress induced alopecia, triggered by the crumbling of life as I knew it when COVID hit. Once we realized this whole pandemic was going to be longer than two weeks, I had to make the call of where I would lose my mind the slowest. My windowless one bedroom apartment in NYC or moving to Florida with my family? When faced with fight or flight, I took United Flight 5432 to Jacksonville on a Sunday afternoon. For the next three months, I experienced lightheadedness, back pain and a bald spot. Was it the stress of COVID? Was it my body giving initial signals of lymphoma? Who knows.
Even though my life slowed down in Florida, my mind kept up the same frantic pace. By July, I was ready to get back to the NYC energy that matched my busyness as a baseline. I upgraded to a sun filled one bedroom, noticing chest pain and a chest rash after the move. Chalking it up to being out of shape, I kept going. After a few weeks, the chest pain was met with fatigue. After countless negative COVID tests, I finally went to the doctor. They ordered a chest x-ray and diagnosed me with pneumonia, sending me away with antibiotics and an appointment in 6 weeks to confirm it cleared up.
Over the next six weeks, I must’ve googled “is pneumonia contagious?” every other day. Is it viral? Is it bacterial? I felt a little better but didn’t understand why no one around me was getting sick. The chest rash remained but my primary care said that was unrelated, referring me to a dermatologist.
When my follow up chest X-Ray came back looking exactly the same, the next step was a CT scan that was promptly denied by insurance. I made an appointment with a pulmonologist hoping for better luck with authorization. The day before my appointment, my chest pain skyrocketed to 10/10 on the Wong Baker pain scale. Refusing to go to the hospital for fear of getting COVID, I went to the appointment with tears streaming down my face, asking if we could do a CT scan outside of the ER.
To my dismay, the doctor gently nudged me to the ER. It turns out 10/10 pain was, in fact, an Emergency. I finally obliged by going to the hospital. When I finally got the results of my CT scan and saw the concern on the ER docs faces, COVID was no longer at the top of the list of fears. After three days of tests, pain killers, naps, blood draws, visits from specialists, and more painkillers we had a diagnosis.
The rash was a product of the large tumor in my chest that broke my sternum, resulting in the 10/10 pain. Primary mediastinal b cell lymphoma was the exact diagnosis. All I heard was cancer.
Maybe it was the painkillers, maybe it was the trauma response, maybe it was the anesthesia or maybe it was my mind finally slowing down enough to listen to what my body had been trying to say all along. All I know is when I was diagnosed, clarity consumed me. My limiting beliefs melted away and I saw the life I could be living if I could get out of my own way. I was confident in my ability to beat cancer and committed to building a life of love, authenticity and vulnerability when it was over.
The softball sized mass grew to resemble a cantaloupe within days and I started chemotherapy as soon as possible. My community rallied around me, with my family packing up my belongings in New York and moving them to Philly while I was inpatient for the first round of chemo. For the second time in six months, my life as I knew it was over. Except this time, I finally slowed down.
Over the next six months, I underwent six rounds of EPOCH-R chemotherapy. Five days of 24/7 IV chemotherapy, followed by two weeks home to recover. My heart really understood the assignment and slowed all the way down to 40 bpm when I was hooked up to chemo, so all of my treatments were inpatient to monitor my cardiac activity. For the first three, visitors were welcome. For the final three, it was just me and my nurses hiding from the omicron variant.
During chemo, I reveled in an empty to-do list and space to just be. Evidently I was deeply burnt out, which should’ve been obvious when my excitement for 6 months of paid medical leave was so prominent it overshadowed the reason for the time off. The energy I was spending on my career and managing the anxiety associated with it was now being channeled solely on my health and my physical, mental and emotional healing. I started writing as a way to keep my friends and family updated, reconnecting with a passion I had let go of in childhood. I meditated daily which allowed me to stay connected with the clarity and peace that came with my diagnosis. My side effects weren’t fun but by treatment #3, we’d figured out that IV fluids and a sedentary lifestyle kept the mouth sores and lightheadedness at bay.
When I finished treatment, there was still activity in my scans. Instead of a clean bill of health, I was sent away with an appointment 6 weeks later for a follow up. I tried to jump back into my life in NYC and belly flopped. Busyness and burnout were no longer my baseline, I craved stillness and balance. I knew how I wanted to live my life but was having a hard time doing it in the life I lived before.
Shortly after finding out I was in remission, I discovered breathwork. While meditation allowed me to connect with clarity and peace, breathwork gave me the roadmap for how to sustain it and live the life I wanted to. It helped me redefine my relationship with my job, prioritizing well being and balance. It empowered me to redefine my relationship with alcohol, letting go of it as a part of my identity. It gave me the confidence to move out of NYC, even though I thought I was going to live there forever. By connecting with my breath, I gained clarity on who I was and let go of who I thought I was supposed to be.
It’s been two years since I finished treatment, recently celebrating with a clean scan. The last two years have been the hardest and most rewarding of my life. The depths of grief are balanced by the heights of gratitude. The lows of loss are met with the highs of new experiences.
If it wasn’t for cancer, I don’t know who I would be today. It’s possible I would’ve still found breathwork to help me connect with my voice, but my inner critic probably would’ve kept me from pursuing facilitation and supporting others in connecting with their own authenticity. It’s possible I would’ve still moved to San Diego, but my fear of the unknown might’ve kept me in the spaces that were uncomfortable but familiar.
Today, I am a San Diego based breathwork practitioner and authenticity coach. I am passionate about supporting people in getting out of their heads and back in their bodies through the power of the breath. For up to date breathwork and coaching offerings, check out www.shannoncury.com or @shancury on Instagram. Story telling continues to be a powerful part of my journey and I am grateful to support others in sharing theirs through the Cancer Actually F**cking Sucks Podcast. Listen wherever you get your podcasts and find us @canceractuallysuckspod on Instagram.
Cancer has given me a profound sense of gratitude and made me much more aware of all the good that surrounds me in both the everyday and in the extraordinary.
Cancer has completely changed my life and I am thankful for the place I’m at. I’ve become a mom, participated in national fundraisers, advocacy, and even shared my story with legislators who are fighting to update the Breast Care Equity Act.