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New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors

The first time photographer Bill Aron heard someone say, “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he stared in disbelief. Surprisingly, he continued to meet others who felt the same way, and he began to see in them a sort of hope he did not think was possible. Inspired by their stories, he began to work on New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors, a book recently published by Skyhorse Publishing. “It is the kind of book,” writes Aron in the introduction, “I wish had existed when I was diagnosed with cancer.”

New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors documents 120 individuals and what happens to them after a diagnosis of cancer. Importantly, “it is not about the disease we call cancer,” writes Aron, “but about life after a diagnosis.” What follows are the stories of 10 survivors who discovered that hearing the words “you have cancer,” was the start of a new beginning, rather than an end to their lives.

Adam Tomei, slide one.
On Valentine’s Day, my doctor’s office called and said, “You have a large lump on your leg, and it could very well be cancer … and life threatening.” Those are heavy words. That was the same day that I got my divorce papers. So whenever anyone tells me they’ve had a bad Valentines Day, I say, “Really? Let me tell you about one that I had.” I went through crazy, grandiose ideas that I was going to change my life. I remember thinking that if they cut off my leg, I could become the first one-legged president. Everything was going to be new and different. And then in the end, I realized that I liked my life. The one real change that I made was a new sense of gratitude, an appreciation for life. Just life. Just being alive. I never had that before.

Conchita O’Kane, slide two.
Before my diagnosis, my relationship with my husband had been growing weak. We were empty nesters and going through trying times. After my diagnosis, he became the person I had fallen in love with. I saw his nurturing and his loving side. The relationship was wonderful again. I am faced with the reality that I am not destined to be around as long as I thought…I was living before, but I wasn’t living with passion. I will not be a passenger on the train. I want to drive the locomotive.

Tiffany Graley, slide three.
One day in chemo I fainted. They told me it might be a tumor in my brain. I freaked out. A beautiful Asian girl came over and sat next to me. It was intimidating because I was bald and bloated, with no make-up, feeling like crap, and she was so beautiful. She put her arms around me and comforted me. That day I knew I had met an angel. From then on, through every treatment, we were always by each other’s side. One morning I found out she had died. I wondered why God didn’t take me, because she was so good. He put her in my life to save my life and then took hers. Not all cancer survivors can be famous, but we’re all survivors and want to help as many others as we can. And I have to do twice as much, because I’m now living for two of us. The self I came out of cancer with is much better than the self I had when I went in. If all I had to do was lose my hair and a piece of my arm, it was worth it.

Lilly Padilla, slide four.
It was a time I will never forget. I changed both my work life and my romantic life at the same time. I was under a lot of stress and too busy to pay attention to my body symptoms, but I knew something was wrong. I almost felt like I could not survive. But my mother and my sister were strong for me…They asked me daily, “Today are you going to get up and learn something? Or are you going to stay in bed?” I went from a bad experience and feeling depressed to having a wonderful life, finding my purpose, and being a much stronger person. I see the better things in life instead of worrying about the little things. I know that the way I think determines how life will unfold. If I think with a good emotion, my life will be good. And it is.

Robert Ram, slide five.
Liia, Robert’s mother: You hear stories and never think about it happening to your own family. It was a struggle, but we knew we had to be strong. It was hard for our other kids. It affected their schoolwork. Our whole life was upside down because we were spending so much time at the hospital. But all this adversity and chaos brought us so much closer.

Ravi, Robert’s father: When little kids stare at his leg, he has them come over and touch it and ask questions. Then he teases them and scratches it like it’s itching. He has such a good sense of humor about it. Some days he’ll put a Band-Aid on it.

Liia: He proves to all of us that you can always make the best of anything. We quickly realized how precious life is. We could have lost one of our children. So now we tell them all to live every day because you never know what tomorrow might bring. We don’t look back. Only forward.

Brandon Schott, slide six.
Whether it’s cancer or anything else that gets hard in life, there is potential for transformation. I’ve learned that you don’t know what you can do until you’ve tried it. Spirituality, for me, is that force which binds us all together as people. Ultimately when we choose to serve God, we choose to serve that spirit, that common bond that we all share together. The amount of love that surrounded me was beautifully overwhelming. I saw spirituality in action. I knew the energy wasn’t mine to keep. I was just borrowing it for a little while, so I’ve since aimed to pay it back and help others in return wherever I can.

Bronwynn Saifer, slide seven.
Because I was so young, it took me six months of begging doctors to look at the lump and do a biopsy. I was eventually diagnosed with the most aggressive form of breast cancer. Before cancer, my life was horrible… I always used to live in the past. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m actually living, not just surviving… Although I visit fear, I no longer live in it. And that is the greatest joy and freedom I have ever experienced. Cancer has been a catalyst for me to live more fully and to love more deeply. And if one day I do transition from this consciousness to another, I would not want to change a thing. It has been my greatest teacher. For that I am grateful. I do not by any means want to give anyone the impression that I am floating on clouds all day long, because I fall apart regularly. But that’s okay with me… I have a sense that something truly amazing is about to happen.

Bronwyn died on September 8, 2008. The cancer had metastasized throughout her body, and she was in terrible pain. She asked that her life support be disconnected. Instead of a memorial service, she requested a “celebration of life” for all of her friends on a bluff that she loved overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Her ashes were scattered there at sunset, her favorite time of day.

Charlie Lustman, slide eight.
I don’t believe in statistics. If I did, you’d be listening to a ghost. A routine dentist visit revealed that I had an unusual lump on my upper jaw. The biopsy determined it was osteosarcoma, an extremely rare cancer. I plowed through a marathon, three-day vocal session to finish an album before going under the knife. Two surgeries later, I had lost three-quarters of my upper jaw. Through my music I could process everything that had happened, and it also gave me confidence that I had a reason for staying on this planet. A friend told me not to let the doctors tell me when I was going to die. That was particularly profound for me because my father was a holocaust survivor. I never lost hope. I was determined not to let cancer be my reality.

Kevin Carlberg, slide nine.
A Rolling Stone magazine competition had just voted our group the best college band in America, and we were touring in Colorado. During that time, I started having terrible headaches. Then, all of a sudden, doctors told me I had a brain tumor the size of a fist and needed surgery. We kept our wedding date for two months later, but we downsized it and made it much more intimate. My wife is amazing; she is my rock. I never would have been able to do any of this without her… Every night the three of us read from a little prayer book, and then she (my daughter, Lyric) says a prayer for “Daddy’s head.” My wife reminds me that life is just like training for a marathon. One mile at a time, every day. We make it work. No one is going to tell me when my time is up. I have found out that I am about six times past the length of time they expected me to live, so I’ve already proven statistics wrong.

Sophia Colby, slide ten.
Sophia’s father, Patrick: Sophia’s disease is often diagnosed posthumously. It’s often too late because testing takes too long. She was only a week and a half away from that point of no return. No one still knows how she survived. We were on a camping trip and had to see a doctor, who was able to diagnose her. We think of that camping trip as some sort of divine intervention. She was such a little social butterfly. She would knock on other patients’ doors, even the depressed teenagers, and get them to come out and play. She was always happy, bouncing around, coloring, and dragging her IV pole around with her. One day the doctor looked at the nurse and asked, “Are you sure we’re giving this kid chemo?”

Sophia’s mother, Bridget: Life is about moments… We have started to live day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and sometimes second by second. And when you sit there with those seconds seemingly so long, you realize how many of them you have. We have the luxury of seeing so many little gifts that other people don’t see. The smell of my daughter’s hair in the morning is one such gift. My favorite daily gift is getting to snuggle in the morning. There is a constant reminder that she’s borrowed. She’s not ours.

New Beginnings is available wherever books are sold, and on the internet, including via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

—Sarah Stacke

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