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Survivor Spotlight: Darlene Graves, M.A., EdD

“We learn we can live one day at a time, for that is all any of us is given.”

In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we invited Cancer Support Community member Darlene Graves, M.A., EdD to share her story – how she dealt with a cancer diagnosis after moving to a new state away from friends and family, how she armed herself with knowledge to find the treatment plan right for her, and how she found tools and camaraderie to deal with the emotional effects of cancer at the Cancer Support Community.

My husband, Michael, and I are newcomers to Oxnard River Ridge, having moved to the central coast from Virginia just three years ago. Our story includes a career teaching together in five different college communication departments over the past 40 years, from Southern California, to Oregon, to Virginia and back to California. I was teaching and directing college theatre productions at George Fox University when we moved from Newberg, Oregon to Virginia to teach in graduate programs.

We were adjusting quite well to a new climate, culture, and community when I was stunned by the “suspicious findings” report from my annual mammogram. Those daunting words echoed in my mind as I waited for results from my first lumpectomy. Suddenly being away from family and friends back in Oregon plunged me into dark loneliness. Michael and I clung to each other more tightly in our newly-perceived “foreign” land, depending on faith to carry us through unchartered waters. We breathed more easily when we found out the lump was benign, but having been healthy all my life, I felt physically vulnerable for the first time. I had three more lumpectomies in less than two decades, eventually joking about my “Frankenstein Breasts” until in 2006 the fourth one revealed a malignancy deep in the duct.

Although the tumor was contained and the surgeon confident he had gotten it all, he recommended a mastectomy plus their traditional seven weeks of radiation, as he said: “for peace of mind.” I had been doing research and teaching on creative problem solving, so my own proclivity to “think outside the box” came into focus. We did the best thing we knew to do: we waited and prayed for wisdom then we took an active role in looking for alternatives to my situation. We did intensive research, checked medical websites, read articles and armed ourselves with information we had not been initially given. We discovered that brachytherapy, a one-week more-focused radiology especially suited for ductal carcinoma in situ, was available in a leading hospital in a neighboring city, but had not been offered to us in our town because they did not have the machinery. I was thankful that Michael and I kept our heads and took responsibility to learn more about alternatives unknown to us.

There are always alternatives in life. What I have learned from this adventure is to first wait, breathe deeply, focus, pray, listen more, talk to people who care about you personally, and ask God for wisdom in taking each step of the journey, listening for that small voice whispering “This is the way, walk in it.”

I had no family near by and felt lonely when we moved to California from Virginia. Isolation is not healthy for anyone, so I actively sought other ways to connect with people.  I read about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction workshop in the newspaper and called.  When I was able to get into the seminar, I felt quickly at home and made it a point to continue through the entire series and even took it a second time asking Michael to join me.

The Cancer Support Community here is heaven-sent, with remarkable publications and programs offering comfort and reliable means by which we can find calmer islands in our troubled seas when we are faced with life’s uncertainty. We learn we can live one day at a time, for that is all any of us is given. We are fortified by wisdom and courage of others who have hacked through the jungles before us. When I wake in the morning, before my feet hit the ground, I thank God I am alive. We can be more “mindful” about these precious lives we have, focusing on being present in the moment and expressing gratitude for what we have and less on what we don’t have. Both my husband and I have benefited by the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Seminar led by the amazing Catherine Baum. We also felt healing at the Laughter Yoga and the comedy nights.

As a cancer survivor, your diagnosis takes you off guard and you feel adrift and disconnected as well as vulnerable. Whereas before, “IT” was out “there” — but now, the dreaded “big C” stealthily invaded your body without permission or your cognitive awareness. After that, you always wonder if any new mishap or strange feeling may be another  “hidden menace.” So you have to be mindful to breathe in a healthy way and to accept your life in smaller doses, with gratitude. You become a part of a new “community” that is fighting the scourge and you get a sense that others at the center understand your sometimes unstable and shaky emotions.

Being here on the Central Coast, embraced by the enduring mountains and the everlasting sea, helps me gain a perspective on the expansive beauty of this wonderful planet we live on. I actively seek creative expression whenever I can. I teach on-line college courses, do clay sculpture and photography and visit many of the music and art festivals and galleries. It is such good news that folks take precious time to lovingly create art, making our sometimes dark world that much brighter. I love reading books on creative problem solving, faith development, and artistic expression, one being A Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It prompted me to ponder thankfulness daily and actively keep a gratitude journal. My pets also remind me they live in the moment, find fascination in little things, and probably hardly fret about the future!

The mission of the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara is to ensure that all adults and children impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community.

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