Erin Ley Author
To choose happiness over misery when faced with this type of a situation is a lot easier said than done—I was 25, and abruptly thrown into a world of disease, pain and turmoil. What could I take out of the experience happily? Many things, as is illustrated in my book—the negative brought full circle to demonstrate all of the positive results from my experience. Yes, I went through extreme anger and helplessness on many occasions through my various surgeries and hospital visits, but all I could think about was getting well and to continue on with my ‘new and improved’ life.
My identity became a big question mark—who was this person I saw in the mirror? Would people still love me? Might I frighten them? Sure it seemed superficial, but it was a big reality to me. It was not only unnatural to me to be completely hairless; it was always a constant reminder of the disease. Pre-diagnosis I gave credence to everyone else’s viewpoint of who I was, more than my own self-assessment of my identity. Having experienced cancer and everything that came with it brought me back to my true self. Eventually, the physical, emotional, and spiritual reunited making me whole once again.
Through this experience, it helped me to realize that with every tragedy comes a balance of bliss—the experience has caused me to live more deeply and more intensely, and has helped me to become more immersed in the essentials of my life to a higher degree than I would have otherwise been. My ultimate goal is to empower and inspire those going through the diagnosis of cancer—to be able to help someone else through their life-threatening situation without as great a struggle. I now have a healthy respect for my life, and for those lives around me.
I first met Erin (Heenan) Ley when we were beginning our junior year of high school in Garden City, New York. Erin always loves a good time and always has a smile on her face – she’s a very approachable person. We also had a lot in common, so Erin and I quickly became best friends; we have remained so to this day.
We were only twenty-five years old when Erin was diagnosed with a lifethreatening form of cancer – non-Hodgkins lymphoma – in May 1991. I was shocked – how this could happen to anyone our age, and to Erin of all people, was beyond my comprehension. As I watched Erin go through the demanding treatments that tested her courage, faith, and physical, emotional, and mental strength to their limits, all I kept thinking was that she had to get better. I knew Erin was an incredibly strong person, so I believed with all my heart that her physical and mental strength would make her healthy again.
This book is Erin’s story of her personal journey through cancer. She writes candidly about the many ups and downs she experienced – hope and despair, joy and distress, bravery and fear, tranquility and anger. Nevertheless, when Erin looks back and discusses those times with me, she always says she is grateful to have had the experience, and that it changed the direction of her life for the better.
The time Erin spent living with cancer gave her a priceless gift – the willingness and ability to look for the silver lining, no matter how difficult things get. Her diagnosis and treatments took her on a journey that tested this ability to the limit. Her life-and-death battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma was the catalyst that prompted her to explore the deepest parts of herself, where she found strength and wisdom she didn’t know she had. With great admiration, I watched the strongest person I know keep getting stronger and stronger during the most difficult time of her life. And more than ten years later, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I drew strength from my memories of Erin’s struggle and ultimate success – they were so inspirational for me! Without realizing it, Erin had shared her priceless gift of optimism and faith with me.
When I told Erin about my diagnosis, she hopped right into the picture and played an amazing role in my journey with cancer. She made me realize that I was going to get through it, and that the cancer was not a death sentence. As Erin had shown me a little more than ten years before, it’s mind over matter. With her help and encouragement, and with the incredible support of my husband, Jerry, my will to live became bigger and greater than anything else. Cancer was the enemy, and I was going to beat this enemy. After radiation, a double mastectomy, numerous operations, seemingly endless medication, and everyone tilting their head asking me if I was okay, I finally got through it – I became a survivor. I ask myself to this day, What would I have done without her?
Now that all of the craziness is over, I want to thank Erin for her uplifting conversations and the gift of a St. Peregrine medal (the patron saint of cancer patients), which I keep in my wallet at all times. Erin showed me that when you recognize how strong you really are, you can battle anything. She helped me to see that I needed to grow stronger, grow as a woman, and realize that nothing would take me away from my life. And that is exactly what I did – with Erin’s support, I drew upon my never-ending physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
In this book, Erin does not minimize the physical and emotional pain and fear experienced by patients, their families, and their friends. On the contrary, she writes with searing honesty about the debilitating effects that her diagnosis and treatment regime had on her and everyone around her. As we, her loved ones, were helping her through this trying time in her life, she was doing the same for us. We were drawing strength from each other.
I realized Erin’s strength as a woman when she lost her “crowning glory” hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. I went with her to help her pick out wigs. That must have been a devastating experience for her, but she continued to smile and glow as the beautiful woman that she truly is. We actually had fun with it – Erin and I had so many laughs that day. Who would think?
The most inspiring part of Erin’s message is that in the midst of all the pain, fear, and sometimes despair, she was able to find many positive things – important practical lessons, insights into herself and her relationships with loved ones, and the power and beauty of hope for the future. These are what Erin calls the perks of cancer. This book does not recount her experiences in chronological order. Instead, each section explains how Erin recognized and gradually embraced one of these perks, and how each has contributed to her development as a person.
This book is a gold mine of information, support, and inspiration for cancer patients, their families, and everyone who would like to more fully understand what a diagnosis of cancer means at the most intimate, personal level. In it, Erin gives practical advice on everything from coping with hair loss, how to tell strangers that you have cancer, and heartfelt words of support to others who find their lives turned upside down by a diagnosis of serious illness.
Ultimately, this book is about what Erin learned about herself, about others, and about the world while battling a life-threatening illness. It tells the story of one person’s experience, but its message is universal – out of pain and despair, we can always find joy and hope if we are willing to look for them.
Thank you, Erin, for making my life richer and better than it has ever been before.
Kristin Linn Voels, Cancer Survivor
When all that was done, the diagnosis was in. Cancer.
When I first heard the word “cancer” spoken by my pulmonologist, I immediately assumed I was receiving a death sentence. My life flashed before my eyes, and everything I’d ever wanted to accomplish seemed suddenly out of reach. I could not accept the notion of losing those I loved. I went into a panic, unable to gather my thoughts. The only thing my body was capable of doing at that point was gathering what was left of its diminishing strength to utter what seemed like a bottomless, gut-wrenching “Nooooooo!”
By this time, my parents had already learned of the diagnosis. The pulmonologist asked them to wait down the hall until he informed me himself. My parents were told it could make things worse if they were in the room with me. But to this day, they seem haunted when they recall hearing my heart-wrenching scream. Nevertheless, they were a great source of comfort when they were finally permitted to enter my room, only to find me curled up in a ball, filled with fear and confusion. I don’t remember what was said at that point, but I do remember the relief I felt that they were with me.
Later that night, a priest came to my room. Unfamiliar with the hospital routines, I misinterpreted the purpose of his informal visit. As a Roman Catholic, I was certain he was there to anoint me with the final sacrament – the Last Rites. My heart stopped when he approached my bed, my breathing became rapid, and through my tears I ordered him out of the room and told him never to come back. Afterwards I shook for hours. I was not ready to meet my Maker, nor was I prepared to say good-bye to my life.
I was, however, about to say good-bye to my life as I knew it. Prepared or not, the moment I received my diagnosis my life was altered for good.
When that day had begun, I was twenty-five years young, living at home with my family, and pretty much just drifting through life. My existence was not very deep. I was not the type who took the time to stop and smell the roses or to feel the velvety beauty of their soft petals. But by nightfall, having received this horrific diagnosis, my sense of a future full of relatively carefree days had come to a jolting halt. As I tried to fall asleep, terror gave way to an imagined future of doctors and tests and treatments that would make me feel worse than I already did.
I had no way of knowing then that cancer would hardly be the end of my carefree life. In fact, more accurately, it heralded a new beginning – a less carefree approach and a more life-filled manner of living.