This is the time of year that seems like there’s never enough time, there’s always a student(s) at my door with a question and I never get enough sleep. But, this year, the beginning of the year felt very different for me with a renewed sense of the importance of still taking time for myself.
You see, last year at this time (almost to the day), I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, this thought preoccupied me to the point of having difficulty remaining focused on those ever present questions from students and the variety of tasks that needed to be completed.
Fortunately, my original diagnosis was considered Stage 0 with an excellent prognosis. Because of my family history, it was caught very early. And, even though my diagnosis changed during the process of surgeries, biopsies and radiation treatment, the ultimate prognosis and result was excellent. I am happy to say that I was given a clean bill of health by the 3 doctors that coordinate my care now.
Of course, my family was the first group of people that we told about my diagnosis. After that, came my staff members that I talked to individually. After that, I began to email students, colleagues in other areas of my campus and friends across the country. My goal was to put together a circle of support for myself in order to deal with some days that I assumed would be difficult.
Here’s what I learned throughout this process.
I have the best family, friends and colleagues on earth. People I love, both near and far, reached out and supported me. Being a person that hates to ask for help, this forced me to ask for and accept help in a variety of ways. My husband and daughter were a huge support and for this, I am especially thankful because I know this was an experience that impacted them just as much as it did me. It was a different impact, but just as upsetting.
I also work with the best students. Here I sent emails that I had carefully drafted about the cancer in order to communicate my diagnosis in a straight-forward manner, but also to reassure them that my prognosis was good and that I was planning on only being out for a short amount of time. My fear was that this would be upsetting for them. It turns out that my students were also an excellent support system. I received so many responses about personal or family experiences with cancer or other serious illnesses that I was shocked. And, every single story had a happy ending. It’s unfortunate that cancer has become so common, but I’m glad that so many instances have a positive outcome. So, instead of me having to coach them through this, many of them coached me – possibly unintentionally.
Always – no matter what – take time for yourself. This is something that we forget during this hectic, chaotic time of the year. And, as women, all the messages we receive from society tell us to take care of everyone else before we care for ourselves. This experience reminded me that I am the most important person for whom I need to care. This is why I sometimes make choices to not attend campus events that aren’t sponsored by my area or to say no when I’ve been asked to help with one more thing that isn’t a part of my regular responsibilities. Even though there are many nights when I take work home, I also purposefully make the choice to not bring work home as often as possible. And, even with everything I’ve been through this past year, I still sometimes feel guilty for these decisions. While I consider myself to be an assertive person, it is still difficult to say no.
I’ve learned a number of other things specifically related to my medical experience that I won’t detail here, but I will say this. Get educated about your family medical history. Visit the doctor regularly and ask questions. Get the information you need or want. Advocate for yourself with the medical professionals whom you see.
I share all this, not because I want to show what I’ve overcome or appeal to anyone’s sympathy or bring anyone’s mood down. (Talking about cancer definitely makes a conversation become awkward and I talk it about pretty naturally now. My 18-year-old daughter would probably tell you that I’m just awkward anyway.) I tell you all this to let you know you need to take care of yourself now….before you have a disturbing medical diagnosis or a serious illness. You need to learn how to say no before it becomes a dire need to cut back on your responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family, friends and/or colleagues. And, take time for yourself. Even if that time for yourself is a standing date to watch a particular television show, read a book with absolutely no redeeming intellectual value or to just sit and absorb your surroundings. I’m not judging and nobody else should either. Take care of yourself. You are the person that knows you best and that’s the person you should trust.
Shelly Morris Mumma is the Director of Leadership, Student Engagement and First Year Experience at St. Norbert College. You can find her on Twitter @ShellyMMumma.