From Surviving to Thriving: How Cancer Changed My Mindset

From Surviving to Thriving: How Cancer Changed My Mindset

On May 15th, 2008, my life changed forever.

In order for me to explain what pushed me to start my lifelong journey of self-exploration and self-love, you need to know about one of the hardest things I have ever faced, that led me to look at life differently. This experience became my “why” – my reason for putting health and happiness first…and ultimately, my reason for starting this blog.

You may think this story is quite grim (especially for my first-ever blog post), but keep reading! For almost three years, this was what I called real life. To know me is to know this story, and I am so honored to be able to share it with the world:

I was 18 years old and I had just finished my freshman year of college at Youngstown State University in Ohio. I had already declared my Broadcasting major and Journalism minor, and after a pretty rocky first semester (I like to call this my “transitional period,” though my parents would probably call it something else), I got myself back on track to finish out the year smoothly.

I had made dozens of new friends, fallen into a great group of like-minded aspiring journalists, dated some questionable guys, defied my parents and made some not-so-great decisions. I was basically on par for what’s expected of a first-year college student.

The night of May 14th, I got home from a blind date around 9 p.m. (for those of you wondering, it was not a success and I still can’t, for the life of me, even remember who set it up…or the guy’s name). I made a big old bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, sat on the couch and watched a little bit of TV before turning in for the night.

I was still living with my parents at the time since I went to a “commuter college,” so there wasn’t much to do past 9 p.m. in the house. I fell asleep pretty promptly, but about two hours into my sleep, I woke up with a terrible pain shooting up my back. I walked into my parents’ room to tell them I wasn’t feeling right. I hadn’t complained about not feeling well prior to that, so their response was what any other parents’ response would be:

“You just finished finals, you’re probably just exhausted. Try to go back to sleep and we’ll see if it feels better in the morning.”

A few hours after I tried to go back to sleep, it had not gotten any better. In fact, it had gotten worse than I could ever imagine. A tremendous amount of pain ran through my entire body, literally paralyzing me. I yelled for my parents as I tried to do an “army roll” out of my bed, ultimately falling straight onto the floor.

My dad picked me up, carried me down the stairs and my parents immediately took me to the emergency room. At this point, not only was I paralyzed from pain, but I had worked myself up so much that I entered a full-blown anxiety attack that made me sick to my stomach.

After what seemed like hours, I was put into an examination room and given my first (of many) spinal taps. The emergency room visit is still hazy, but what came next I will never forget. A doctor entered my room, with my parents by my side, and said the words that altered the course of my life, and the lives of everyone who loved me:

“You have Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia…blood cancer.”

They went on to tell me that the pain I had felt in my back was my leukemia cells growing in my spinal cord, and multiplying at too rapid of a rate for my healthy cells to kill them off. The pain that overtook my body was what happened when those leukemia cells finally outgrew my spinal cord, and burst throughout my body by way of my blood.

After hearing the news, I was in shock, but couldn’t fully process it because I was still in an incredible amount of pain and on lots of morphine. I was transferred to the pediatric unit of the hospital nearby, where I stayed for over two weeks. At 18 years old, I was able to be treated in either pediatrics or as an adult, and ultimately, my family and I chose pediatrics.

For most of those two weeks, I still wasn’t able to move.

I had a meta-port put into my chest for an “easy-access” line to give me chemotherapy; this was basically a small dog bowl-looking device that was put into my chest, right beneath my color bone, that was accessed with two needles every time I needed chemo or a transfusion of any kind (blood, platelets, fluids, etc.)

The doctor who put my port in ultimately did it wrong, causing problems in the short term and long term. My lung had collapsed not long after my surgery, requiring me to get a chest tube put in.

The first few weeks in the hospital were very rough – I started chemo immediately, I was given shots and injections and infusions day after day, I was essentially bedridden. But there were some things that lifted my spirits:

  • My nurses would joke that they needed to put up a red velvet rope and hire a bouncer because of the amount of visitors I had every day. It was incredible to see all of the people I had met in different parts of my life show up to support me.
  • My family totally banded together – there was at least one person from my family (usually more like three) in my room with me at all times. I never spent a night alone and I always had the comfort of family, even if I didn’t show how grateful I was for it at the time.
  • My aunt, who is one of my best friends, found a woman who owned a franchise of Taco Bell visiting her grandson on the same floor of the hospital. Needless to say, I was provided with unlimited tacos for my whole hospital stay. Thanks, Aunt Lisa!
  • My nurses made me countless posters of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson photos and quotes to brighten up the mood in my room.

After almost three weeks in the hospital, I returned home. I was very weak and exhausted, and it was incredibly hard for me to even smell food, let alone keep it down. I lost a lot of weight very quickly (I am about 5’8 and I weighed 98 pounds at my lightest), and my hair started to fall out after about a month of chemo, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. My steroid caused my face to blow up like a balloon.

While I still had my hair, I purchased a wig and had it cut to mimic my hairstyle. Looking back, I wish I would have had the confidence to wear more head wraps and even just keep my head free, but at the time I wouldn’t even sit around the house without my wig on.

One of the drugs I had to take as part of my chemotherapy, Vincristine, cause a side effect called “foot drop.” My feet were essentially completely unable to flex, causing them to drag behind me when I walked (if I even could walk).

My muscles began to atrophy very quickly, as I generally had no energy. I am still so grateful for my cousin coming over and pushing me to walk to the mailbox at the end of our driveway for some physical activity. Without that push, I may have been completely sedentary for most of my treatment.

My strength had dwindled so much at one point that it was commonplace for me to fall into the bathtub when trying to stand up off of the toilet.

My immune system was so compromised that my friends and family had to peel the skin from all of my fruits before I could even touch them, at the risk of exposing me to any bacteria living on them.

I spent roughly five days a week, for hours a day, in the clinic getting chemo or transfusions and blood tests.

Because of my extreme weight loss, I was put on an appetite stimulant and I BLEW UP like a balloon. Seriously, I gained about 80 pounds in just a couple months.

Even the slightest fever would land me admittance to the hospital for days. During my treatment, I was even put in the hospital for ear infections and shingles (seriously?!).

This was the ugly truth of cancer.

Not everyone has the same experience that I did – it is completely dependent on the type of cancer you have, the type of treatment you undergo, and the stage your cancer has reached. Other factors like age, gender, ethnicity, genetics, environment, diet, etc. play a role that most of us don’t even consider.

But this was my reality. After a short period of time, my visits from friends dwindled. Everyone’s life continued to move forward and the world continued to turn. My high school friends kept going to Taco Bell every Friday night for their usual hang out. People went back to work and school. My world, however, had stopped dead in its tracks.

Throughout my treatment, I tried to keep a generally positive attitude. I never allowed myself to succumb to the idea of cancer “winning.” I was going to beat this, no matter what it took. While many parts of my journey made it hard for me to focus on that mindset, I tried to come back to it when I was thrown off.

Let’s be real, though: keeping a positive mindset all the time when going through something traumatic is essentially impossible. Your emotions, confidence and vision of what life should be get rocked to the core. It takes work to talk yourself into being positive most days. But the work to simply try, I assure you, is worth it.

Strangely, going through cancer at 18 years old wasn’t all bad. I had a handful of very best friends that continued to visit me regularly and take me out of the house when my counts were high enough to be in public. My family continued to show up daily, making me my favorite meals, bringing me puzzles, buying me books and movies. Many jokes were made that I continue to laugh about to this day.

I became very involved with my local Relay For Life, as a team member and volunteer on the board. I joined a team that a great friend of mine, who is also a cancer survivor, started and I built relationships with people that I still have to this day. I was even named Relay Princess my third year of participating!

I ended up only taking a semester off of school and taking one semester of online courses. I was back on campus before I knew it, working toward my degree. And while things weren’t really the same as when I left, my first-year group of friends all went in different directions and I had to take some finals with my port accessed between doctors visits…it was great to be back around people again.

I got my dream car – a red Volkswagen Beetle – to drive to class in style!

After two years of chemo, I entered my “maintenance” period, which meant I received chemo once a month for 10 months leading me to the end of my cancer journey. The effects of my chemo weren’t nearly as brutal, and my hair even started to grow back.

My family and friends came together to throw me an incredible surprise party to celebrate how far I had come. A limo picked me up at the house (my first surprise of the night) with some of the closest people in my life right alongside me. I was under the impression that we were going to a fancy dinner, but quickly after I sat in the limo I was blindfolded.

Little did I know, what seemed like 100 people gathered at my Aunt’s house to celebrate my victory. Rock Band was set up (I know, I’m showing my age), balloons and decorations were everywhere, food was made, and everyone had a smile on their face.

In that moment, I knew that I was truly and unconditionally loved.

On August 28th, 2010, I took my very last chemo pill. At five years cancer free, my amazing husband threw me yet another surprise party filled with friends, love and laughter. This year, in 2017, I will be celebrating SEVEN YEARS cancer free.

As I look back on that time in my life, and write this post telling you all my story, I feel an overwhelming amount of gratitude that I was given a second chance at life. You may have heard someone say that “life looks different when you look at it through death’s eyes.” While that quote is a little bit dark and morbid, it couldn’t be more spot on.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened to me during my cancer journey was my shift in mindset.

  • I no longer had time for negativity in my life, and eventually, rid most causes of constant stress from my day-to-day.
  • I learned how to love myself, and be thankful for what I did have, as opposed to what was taken from me. I went from being a very active teen to spending months at physical therapy just learning how to walk correctly again. But…I lived to be able to learn to walk again.
  • I developed very effective tools to combat my lifelong struggle with anxiety.
  • I strengthened relationships that lifted me up, and ended relationships that brought me down.
  • I allowed myself to accept true love and found a husband that would stuff the planet in his backpack for me.

I do not claim to have life figured out; on the contrary, Freddy Finds Herself was created so I could share my never-ending journey to find happiness in life. Many of those transitions I listed above didn’t even happen until well after my experience with cancer. Some of them started happening as early as last year. And ALL of them are things I work on every day.

This website is my small slice of happiness in a world that can throw you some wicked curveballs. In my journey to find what makes me whole, I have become increasingly more aware of my diet and what I put in my body. I am a proud vegan who loves to cook (I’ve come a long way from that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese). I’ll share some of my favorite plant-based recipes with you, and walk you through the steps to create some delicious meals!

I have travelled to the other end of the world with my very best friend (my hubby!) to experience something outside of our comfort zones. I intend to continue to travel to see so many of the wonders that this planet has to offer, and meet new people so I have a better appreciation of life around the globe. I’ll share bits of all of our travels, the adventures we take in every place, the best places to go, and what we learn when we visit.

I practice regular self-love in many forms; meditation, yoga, a bit of pampering now and then, exercise, personal development, WRITING and more. I’ll talk to you about how each of these things have helped me, and I’ll keep you in the loop about anything new I try over time.

I live a real life – a life that many other people in this big, beautiful world can relate to and maybe even learn from. It is my goal to share the raw truth of what goes into finding myself, so maybe you can find the inspiration to find a happier “you” as well.

If I do it right, I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my days. I couldn’t be more excited to see what I learn, the happiness I feel along the way, and to share it with you!

It’s time for us to think a little less…and live a little more.

Light and Love,

Chelsea

My name is Chelsea Fredrickson – I am in love with seeing different parts of the world and finding new parts of myself along the way. I am the creator of and author for Freddy Finds Herself; a lifestyle blog dedicated to documenting my adventures, my successes and failures, and showing others that our process of evolving is never complete and meant to be celebrated.

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