Beginning Again … and Again

Finding my badass self

Photo: Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

By Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

As we stumble through middle age, we’re often struck by an urge to change our life. Maybe it’s a sort of midlife crisis, or else it accompanies a newly empty nest. In my case, perhaps I also remembered my father died a week after turning fifty-three.

Regardless of the impetus, at the age of fifty-two, I challenged myself with fifty-two new life experiences.

The 52/52 Project wasn’t a bucket list: It was more of an unbucket list, intended to enhance my life by pushing myself outside my comfort zone. My exploits included visiting a nude beach with my seventy-five-year-old mother in tow, going on a raid with a vice squad and SWAT team, and crashing a wedding where I accidentally caught the bouquet. My story is chronicled in my new book, Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares.

This year of fear boosted my courage and my confidence. I indeed reinvented myself. When the year ended, I realized my new life had just begun.

Several months after my last escapade and my fifty-third birthday, I found myself facing a new experience I never anticipated.

I was diagnosed with cancer.

I managed to process the news without panic, like the past year taught me to handle other frightening situations. My fear was abated by my oncologist’s explanation of my form of cancer and its excellent prognosis, as well as his unexpected humor.

While I was sprawled across an exam table, my new doctor studied my nether regions. He distracted me with a line of health-related questioning.

“So,” he asked, “are you sexually active?”

“Not so much,” I admitted.

He paused and offered a sympathetic nod. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

I snorted. Nothing lightens up things more than a little dark humor.

I chose to announce my diagnosis to my friends and blog readers with little drama and a bit of my doctor’s good humor. I assured everyone I was taking it in stride and remaining positive.

Detected early, uterine cancer is generally curable. My bloodwork and CT scans showed no complications or spreading of the disease. I felt fairly confident my upcoming surgery (a full hysterectomy) would leave this as a blip on the timeline of my life.

Then, a coworker stopped me at work one day.

“You’re putting on a good face, as you always do,” she said. “But how are you really?”

Being told you have cancer is much like running into a wall. First, you stumble backward, wobbling yet still standing. You often don’t comprehend what hit you—until you notice the bruises left behind.

I’d spent the first month preoccupied with medical appointments and rearranging my schedule. I’d reassured everyone that—other than the customary concern of having several organs yanked from my body while I was knocked out with a breathing tube down my throat—I had no huge worries.

Yet, still.

Still.

I had not allowed myself to feel much about my diagnosis or to truly consider any consequences—not until that conversation with my colleague. As I made dinner that evening, a month after the first unforeseen phone call from my gynecologist, a strange thought struck me.

I was not invincible.

Sure, I had always known this, deep-down, as we all do. Yet my susceptibility to life-threatening conditions had remained a vague and faraway notion. While I had conquered one challenge after another over the past year—growing confident in my ability to overcome anything—in my mind I had grown almost invincible.

Now, I found myself clearly facing my mortality.

Here’s a little insight about a cancer diagnosis. Even if you’ve been reassured your disease has been caught early and should be an easy fix, the C word eventually jolts you. Hearing that one word proves anything can change in a single moment. Out of nowhere, the inevitability of death is shoved straight in your face.

Pushing myself to fully experience life—as I’d done with The 52/52 Project—couldn’t change the fact that I was fifty-three. How could that be when, in my mind, I remained twenty-three? One day, I was a new college graduate and newlywed, with countless years ahead of me. Next, I suddenly found myself at an age when these sorts of things—like cancer—simply happened.

I was neither invincible nor immortal. I was a middle-aged woman. With cancer cells multiplying inside my body.

Life-threatening diseases prompt life-changing thoughts.

I had spent the last year reinventing my life. Now, I realized that beyond my unbucket list, it was time to focus on other life changes.

After my surgery, when several useless body parts and all bits of cancer were removed, I began to reassess my personal obligations, goals, and lifestyle choices.

If I wanted to spend more time with family and friends, surely I could find a way to do it. If I wanted to travel through Europe, I could hike up my credit cards and head on out. If I knew I should begin a daily exercise routine, it was probably best to start today rather than next week. (OK, tomorrow. I promise.)

I remain confident that this cancer diagnosis isn’t an ending. I expect to ramble across this earth for a couple more decades. At the same time, I see no reason to put off anything meaningful if I can achieve it now.

This new life experience wasn’t one I anticipated and not one I would have chosen. If given the option, I’d prefer to face any of my most frightening or uncomfortable 52/52 challenges again—I’d even float in another sensory deprivation tank or have another Brazilian wax. Yet while all those new experiences broadened my horizons and opened my mind, cancer brought a whole new awakening.

Perhaps the vague threat of an ending signals the time for a new beginning.

I plan to grab my little bit of heaven, and raise some grand hell, on my own terms.

There’s no time for beginning again—or even again—like right now.

Sherry Stanfa-Stanley is a writer, humorist and squeamish adventurer. She writes about her midlife escapades in her memoir Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, © August 15, 2017, which ultimately proves it is never too late to reinvent yourself.

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