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Posted near my writing desk is a magnet with a lovely photo of a young girl smiling while pedaling her tricycle. Flowers are blooming in the background. The inscription reads, “There’s joy in every journey.”

Although this little girl is not me, she easily could be. The sentiment describes what I’ve learned. Life is a journey full of twists and turns. Our journeys include not only the places where we plan to land but also the detours such as cancer.

Even when our paths change, special gifts await us. When we embrace both the sorrows and the joys of life, our journeys turn toward healing. We take detours, make friends with our vulnerability, and view scenery that is more breathtaking than any we’ve seen before. When we travel along the journey to wholeness, we discover that we’re new people. We feel contentment in the beauty of our new places.

The texture of my life has been shaped by cancer, medical challenges, and disabilities. With persistent practice, the velvety richness of my life has consented to dance together with its ragged pieces, creating motions of ease and grace.

My story

I was born with hearing loss in both ears. I had several ear surgeries as a child and more as an adult. When I was 12, I had to have lifesaving throat surgery because a tumor had wrapped around my left carotid artery. As a result, I had damaged vocal chords, a soft voice, and weak facial muscles. Twelve years later, I had another kind of tumor, one that could have metastasized. Part of my stomach was removed. Later that year, I had chest surgery for the same type of tumor I’d had when I was 12. Then, in 1999, came another complicated surgery, due to metastasized tumors in my stomach and liver. The rest of my stomach was removed, and a gastrointestinal loop was formed to serve as one. Liver tumors were excised. My left adrenal gland was removed because a benign tumor filled it. Seven years later, another small metastasis in my liver was treated. I continue to be monitored.

All of my immediate family has had cancer. My dad died from cancer of the pancreas. My mother’s widespread cancer metastasized before it was discovered, but she lived nearly a year beyond what the doctors predicted. My sister and mother-in-law survived breast cancer. My husband had mantle cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, extensive chemotherapy, and a stem-cell transplant.

I worked for 32 years as a school social worker. I was privileged to share the journeys of many families who had children with a variety of medical and educational needs. Their stories have inspired me and taught me valuable lessons about how families and children adapt to turns in the road.

What I’ve learned

Through all the twists that I’ve experienced and witnessed, I’ve found that the human spirit is amazingly flexible and irrepressible, and it climbs its way out of the deepest holes.

These setbacks and traumas of life strengthen us in ways we could not imagine before. Without them, we would not uncover our full potential and the depth of our resilient spirit. We would not discover the power in us to triumph and find our way, even when there is no map or a trail to follow. Without the twists of life, our power often remains dim. Without challenges to meet, problems to solve, and mountains to climb, we may never shine at our full brightness.

We can’t control many things in life— such as contracting cancer—but we can control our responses. Gathering information, defining options, and making choices empowers us. We find we can use our strengths in new and different ways. We unearth resources and connections with others that we may never have discovered otherwise. We gain confidence in our ability to face tough circumstances. We adjust. We may not like what we face, but we know we can pick ourselves up out of the wreck on the road and journey on. We know because we already have. We do because we trust ourselves to do it.

A personal journey that includes cancer or other life-altering circumstances gives us freedom. We may not look at it that way at first. But, after the shock clears and we get our bearings, we know that some things need to change. We are freed to discern what gives us energy and strength and to put aside the things that don’t. We can focus on what promotes our health. We are freed to make choices based on what we want to do with life right now.

Today is what we know we have. Today is where we have power. Today is where hope resides. We can view each day as a little life. We can savor each moment’s joy rather than rush by it or wallow in despair and miss it. We don’t have to save the good dishes to use later or keep our best clothes in the closet. We can enjoy them now because we want to. We know that life is for living, and so we say a resounding “Yes!” to life, and we celebrate it because we can.

We’ve learned that we can have cancer and enjoy life. When we transcend our personal pain, we identify ways to help others. We have muddled through our own vulnerability, stumbled over our own fears, and we’ve mustered our courage to round the curve in our paths. Now we’ve found our home, a meaning and purpose in the context of what we’ve experienced. We travel again, even if the mode of transportation is different or the locale not what we’d planned. But we’ve done it, we’ve unearthed unexpected blessings, and we have gifts to offer others. Brighter than ever, our inner light shines outward. Now we light the way for others. We contribute because we are shepherds on the path.

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if I had traveled different roads. What if I had not had the preponderance of medical challenges I’ve faced? What if I’d had another family? What if I’d chosen a career that had not given me opportunities to listen to stories about other families’ strengths and concerns, while providing the level of support needed?

With another set of life experiences, I would no doubt have been a very fine person, but I doubt that I would have tapped the same reservoir of strength and resilience. Nor would I have understood the necessity of living a life of kindness, gratefulness, caring, and heartfelt connections for myself and others.

The Cancer Detour

by Ronda Armstrong
From the November 2009 Signs