A freelance writer and creative professional, I have been to theatre school, traveled the world and fought for my life on more than one occasion. An avid performer and connoisseur of human nature, my storytelling beginnings steered me into pursuing a career as professional actor; studying with Trinity College London, the University of Toronto and Sheridan College.
So what am I doing up here in Ottawa and not down in Toronto? In 2008, I was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer: following surgery in Toronto, I packed up every bit of life I had left into oodles of boxes and moved back up to my family home near Ottawa for treatment. Cancer affects everybody differently, in my case, my creativity got the best of me and I started sketching how it felt to be in recovery while I was still at Mt. Sinai.
Hearkening back to my days as a high school graduate, my summer vacation— the bridge between high school and university—was riddled with catastrophe. One month before starting university, my entire family was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. In my case, these injuries impacted her life on several levels. My spinal fracture, dislocation was mended with a bone graft borrowed from my hip that fused the offending vertebrae. The mesenteric artery and shredded small intestine (from mister lap belt holding me so tight) were stitched and re-sectioned accordingly. My head injury was more than just my brains getting ‘all-shook-up’… I’d hit it so hard that my brains were bruised and bleeding; resulting in a traumatic brain injury, amnesia and a somewhat foggy memory.
Flash forward to Cancer Recovery…
Last time this ‘life or death’ thing happened, I was eighteen and it was more of a waking up to everything being different after the fact kind of thing. In the case of thyroid cancer, I knew going in that there was something seriously wrong with my body. But nothing could have really prepared me for all that had really changed for me.
Malfunctioned as it is my life has taught me a whole bunch of useful things. The art of survival, for instance, is pretty much the art of being stubborn enough to figure out how you’re going to make the most of everything you have left. It’s a technique that some might call ‘bravery’, or ‘strength’, but it all boils down to not giving up (even when you feel like you want to.) My yucky cancerous tumour had grown very attached to the laryngeal nerve that used to operate my right vocal chord. Yes, friend, that means that one side of my voice box is paralyzed. When I started living the life of a cancer patient, my voice wasn’t anything like what it used to be and that was very, very frustrating. It made me sad. My voice was something that I always held in high esteem. It was where my sexy lived.
Goodbye to my career as an actor/live performer…
Farewell to my singing voice (mezzo soprano)…
and Talking is tricky– (the more I talk, the more likely I am to finish in a whisper.)
Once I got over myself, and my upset, I took a second look at my situation to discovered that there are more ways than one to tell a story. I love trying on other people’s lives. Acting has given me some of the most amazing journey’s to explore in a fictional way of being. But that is certainly selling my own story short. I was acting before I even really had this whole living thing figured out. And for me, acting and living pretty much went hand in hand. How I learned about characters and how they developed relationships with other characters and how that affected how they thought and felt and what they did: that was my lesson book. When I plugged in to the landmark forum and the progressive teaching of Ber Seigel, Deepak Chopra, and Eckart Tolle: I began to more fully understand where story starts in the first place. We base so much of how we interact with and what we project to the world on how we experience life and what we make it mean to us.
Nothing could have prepared me for the path I now tread. Everything that has ever happened to and around me has prepared me for the path I now own. In this dichotomy, we own our way of being and refute being owners in the same breath. How is that? Does that make any sense at all when we think about it? For my reasonable short time on this planet, I’ll admit that I have dabbled in both opposing camps. And where blaming everything on anything and everything outside ourselves gives us a spotless, blameless record: it’s hollow nature doesn’t keep us warm at night. We are not responsible for everything that happens to us. That being said, we need to be responsible for who we’re being and what we’re doing in the face of everything that life throws our way. Trust me, this is a way more fulfilling and adventurous place to be. I am now seven years into this whole life after/without Cancer community. Happy to still be of the ‘no evidence of disease’ variety—N.E.D. for short— I am not planning on leaving the healthy living world any time soon.
Life has peppered me with a few setbacks and obstacles (it seems to be an honorary token of her esteem for me to throw a few hiccups into my plans just to see how I deal with them.) I now know what happens when you slam your head into icy pavement after you’ve already had a head injury. Fun as that may sound, I was at least familiar with the territory so I could sort of navigate the terrain accordingly. My creativity and imagination helped me to learn new things about how my brain and body works and keep things going (at a snail’s pace at times—but who’s counting.) My brief revisiting of head injury was also shortly followed by revisiting the wonderful world of having unwanted things/parasites growing inside my body. I’m booked for surgery to remove a bunch of fibroids that I found a little over a year ago. Hormones have turned them into infantile specimens of take-them-out-of-me. So by Christmas: they’ll be gone.
Paying it forward…
The first time that your whole world and/or life and/or body feels like it’s falling apart feels pretty shitty. You’re left scrambling to figure out how you can get through an inestimable bog of grossness that isn’t easy to explain or navigate en route to another unfamiliar space called ‘but I made it through in one piece’ a.k.a. ‘lived to tell the tale.’ I am happy to report that although none of this ever gets any easier, it does become more manageable. Bad things happen to all of us every day. They don’t even have to be related and somehow they happen just the same. That’s where you find your exit strategy from the dreadful world of chaos.
Panic and upset will fall on you—sometimes without warning—and then you’ll sit with it for an uncomfortable while until acceptance of the ‘what is so’ brings grieving and loss into being. (The ‘why did it happen to me’ is a dead end question that may crop up from time to time with no real answer in sight.) You are different now. That’s just how it is. You can never go back to who you were before this happened and that’s a fact. Most of who you are is still there, waiting patiently for you to figure things out. Next comes the ‘so what do I do now’ stage of things. This is where it gets interesting. You’ve already summed up all the things that you’ve lost and everything you’ll never get back, right? So now it’s time to look at what makes you ‘you.’ What you have left is all you’ve got: so let’s do something about it!
Your perspective has changed. That’s just how it is. So why not turn this into a ‘useful lesson’ or the sort. Recovering is all about figuring stuff out as you go along and figuring out means learning. It’s not an easy lesson or a fun thing to do but in the end you do have a choice: sink or swim.
Email >> Melissa.Dwn.Brwn@gmail.com
On Facebook >> Melissa Dawn Brown
Instagram >> @Melissa.Dawn.Brown
Twitter >> @MelissaDwnBrwn