stpatty_graphic_big“Who says cancer can’t be my good luck charm?”

-Cassandra Burke, Cancer To 5k & Half Full participant

 Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Cassandra Burke is a breast cancer survivor who recognizes that, despite her diagnosis, there has been plenty of good luck involved in her fight. In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, she shares her story with us:

“Luck is not often a word associated with cancer. And while I’m not sure luck is the best word to describe the power of what a cancer diagnosis has given me, in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day I find myself compelled to use it.

If you had asked me on October 7, 2010 if I felt lucky, you probably would not have liked the answer.  On that day and the months ahead, luck was the farthest thing from what I felt.  Fast forward three years….my perspective is drastically different.

I am lucky that I have family and friends that wrapped themselves around me and held on tight.  I’m also lucky to have neighbors who wrapped our family in the warmest hug – cleaning our house, cooking our meals, driving me to appointments, providing play dates and transportation for our daughter when I needed to be in the hospital.  It was almost five months before I cooked a meal.  In that time, neighbors and community members we had never met, who only knew us by name or heard of us through someone else, became caregivers for our family.

One day, as luck would have it, I was at BJ’s picking up some items for our family.  As I stood in the checkout line laughing with the cashier (if you knew me, you’d know that I can often be heard laughing for miles), a woman approached me.  I had on a Vera Bradley breast cancer scarf on my bald head.  She asked me if I was a breast cancer survivor.  I told her I was.  She told me that she was too.  There in the aisle we began a conversation that lasted almost an hour.

That Sunday in church, a family sat a couple pews in front of us.  From the back, I recognized the woman as someone I had pointed out to my husband several months prior.  Sometimes she came with her family.  Sometimes she didn’t.  When she did, she usually wore a scarf.  I often prayed for her and her family.  This particular day as she turned her head, I realized she was the woman from the BJ’s encounter.  Before I had a chance to approach her after mass, she was gone.

Several days later, I ran into her again at my daughter’s elementary school.  One of her children was in his last year at the same school.  Was this luck?  I think so.  I was lucky that she approached me that day at the store.  Had I not had cancer, I would not have been wearing that scarf.  Had I not been wearing that scarf, she would have never approached me.  Would we have met?  Possibly.  Would we have connected in a way that has bonded us for life?  I don’t think so.  Would I have missed out on having this friend in my life? Absolutely!

Being diagnosed with cancer brought many more positives than it did negatives to my life.  I’ve always been one of those burn-the-candle-at-both-ends kinds of people.  You know the girls that had the color-coded day planners before we had iPhones with calendars.  My life was completely overextended, both personally and professionally.  When I heard the words You Have Cancer that day, it took me about fifteen minutes to say no to it all! Cancer did that for me.  It gave me perspective.

My husband and I have always embraced the belief that cancer found me for a reason.  It set me on a path that was different from the one I was traveling on at that point.  Cancer gave me the ability to recognize my own strength.  It allowed me to see the selflessness in others. It allowed me to step back, gain new perspective and realize that I had a purpose in this life that I hadn’t yet found.  And while I’m still trying to figure out what that purpose is, I was given a small glimpse almost a year to the day of my diagnosis.

I couldn’t believe I was hearing those words again.  It was as if all the emotions and fears that I had spent a year working through came rushing back.   Within a few days, we were in my surgeon’s office sitting at the same table where I sat at almost a year ago.  I watched in disbelief as she began drawing pictures and talking pathology.  Was I really sitting here listening to this again?  Surgery options, post-surgery options, scars and reconstruction.  Appointments with my plastic surgeon followed.  A post-surgery appointment with my oncologist was scheduled.  What was going on?  It was déjà vu.  Driving through the hospital gate, parking in the lot, walking the halls of the hospital….There was really only one difference.  This time, I wasn’t the patient.  The patient was one of my friends.  She was diagnosed just two weeks shy of the one year anniversary of my diagnosis.  The day that she had surgery, I actually had my fourteenth Herceptin treatment.   After I finished my Herceptin treatment, I went upstairs to keep her company post-surgery.  And there was that luck again, a glimpse into my reason.  I was lucky I had amazing doctors.  I was lucky that I knew exactly what do to help her when she heard those words.  I was lucky that my experience could be the hope for someone else.  It had all come full circle that day.

Cancer is a word that people react to differently.  My family chose to embrace our diagnosis (and it is our family’s diagnosis, not just mine).  We celebrate what I call my Cancer-versary.  Every October 7, we celebrate the day.  It’s a day of hope.  A day that with each passing year allows me to look back at the strength I’ve gained since that day.  It’s a day to celebrate all that I’ve accomplished since treatment and a day to look forward to the path ahead.

I’ve never asked Why did I get cancer?  Some may find that odd.  In the three years since my diagnosis, I’ve had a variety of experiences that have begun to help answer that question.  Do I look at cancer as my good luck charm?  In a way.  It’s changed my life for the better.  It’s returned my perspective to focus on what is important in life.  It’s taken me to the abyss of darkness and allowed me to climb to new heights.  But, if I had to give you one reason why I truly believe that it was lucky that I was diagnosed with cancer, I’d have to say cancer gave me the freedom to stop dwelling on creating a perfect life.  Today, I live my life to the fullest….I’m one of the lucky ones.

This St. Patrick’s Day we encourage you to spread some good luck to your families, friends and those you know who are impacted by cancer. Take some time today to share how lucky you feel to have someone in your life. Or help UCF spread good luck by volunteering for one of our many life changing programs – deliver ChemoCare Bags to cancer centers, support survivors as they are reintroduced to physical activity (CancerTo5k), or lend a helping hand during one of our many events. Contact kim@ulmanfund.org for more details.

Cancer Changes Lives…So Do We!

Please share this story! If you are interested in writing for UCF and sharing how you have been affected by cancer please contact sean@ulmanfund.org.