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6 stages of reality when cancer bites your 30-something butt

The Doctor: “I am 99% sure you have lymphoma [cancer of the lymph nodes]. We have to do a biopsy.”

The Shock

What are you talking about? I’m only 38 years old. I’m the healthiest person I know – I eat clean, exercise… It’s just a cough!

The Denial

I’m 99% sure you’re an idiot. I’m getting a second opinion.

The Fear

What if they’re right? How soon will I die? How much will the treatment hurt?

The Anger

Why me? I give my time generously to others; I give my money generously to charity… Why the fuck am I the first of my 30-something friends to get cancer?

The Sadness

My kids… My husband… My mom… my sister… abandoning them. And the chemotherapy… they’re all going to see me struggle with pain, fatigue, and hair loss. It’s going to be so hard on all of us.

The Acceptance

Well, all I can do is put my faith in science and God and see where we end up.

The Reality

OK, so I’m sick. But that’s only part of my life. I’m also a mom, a wife and a badass boss lady. I’ve got things to do and places to be! The chemo means good days and bad – I’d say about half and half. I squeeze as much as I can into my good days.

I am extremely lucky: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is highly treatable and my prognosis is excellent. It took me some time to be thankful enough for this, of course.

I don’t want to make light of it – the bad days are bad. The nausea is under control (great meds!) but the fatigue is debilitating. For a bubbly busy bee like myself to be confined to bed because I cannot even roll over is hard, frustrating as hell. All my bones and joints ache. Then there’s the constant headache. My bad days are not actually dispersed – they come in blocks. So if the “badness” starts on Sunday, it could continue without reprieve until Thursday. I don’t feel better after a two-hour nap: I sleep and wake up feeling like shit. Do you know how demoralizing it is to wake up exhausted? And how lonely it is, on every level?

There’s also some irony in disease – everyone around you suddenly has a fucking PhD in cancer. They know why you got it – “it’s your diet”, “it’s your stress”, “it’s the pollution”, etc. and they know how to cure it – diet, water fast, affirmations, hypnosis, etc. My coping mechanism with all this (often conflicting) noise is to say – please share the clinical trials and I will look into it.

Well-meaning people keep telling me how strong I am – for the record, I know how strong I am. I am damn strong. And the universe knows it too. No reason to keep testing me!

And then on Day 6 or so post-chemo, the clouds will suddenly part and I’ll get a burst of energy. Hallelujah! And I start buzzing around doing my thing before the cycle starts again two weeks later.

What do I do?

I’m a full-time lota things! I have two babies; I am the chapter president of Ellevate, the world’s premier businesswomen’s network; I am the creator and host of podcast When Women Win which highlights awesome female role models; I am an angel investor, author and speaker. In summary, I’m busy.

The Silver Lining

It is critical to note that everybody’s experience with cancer is unique. For me, getting sick has also been a gift. I hear the groans and I know where you’re coming from. But please hear me out!

Cancer has forced me to slow down and re-evaluate my pace of life. My 2018 hashtag is #doless. I am a positive, energetic person with a natural tendency to say yes – but I am reigning that in. Just because I have a lot of energy does not mean I have to give it all away. I have learned that time is one’s most precious commodity and I am now trying to control it unapologetically. 17 years in the corporate world taught me a lot – but not this. I have to get better at saying no.

We stumble through life thinking that death is bad and is the opposite of life. That is simply not true. Death is the natural and inevitable conclusion of life. The opposite of life is fear. I had never felt fear until I was diagnosed.

Let’s noodle that for a bit: I’ve only just realized that I’ve never before felt fear – what an awesome job my parents did! But cancer will scare you – fear of going through pain, fear of inflicting pain on others… When I let my mind go into fear it is debilitating and depressing. This is the opposite of life. I’ve decided to own my fear: I let myself indulge in morbidity for short periods of time (minutes, not hours). I then assume control and focus on gratitude –  one’s situation can always be worse. I believe that three factors have helped me manage my fear:

1) Logic: my prognosis is good. And living in fear is so upsetting it must be harmful to my recovery (end goal).

2) Faith: I have a great medical team and am doing all that can be done. My life is divinely guided and I am always going in the best direction.

3) Optimism: I like feeling good!

When you lose your hair, it’s not just the from your head or face – no bikini wax necessary! Smooth as silk for months! Cancer patients also get free valet parking at hospitals – don’t knock the small wins!

The big one is kindness. I’ve been blown away by how wonderful the people around me have been. Even acquaintances I haven’t seen for years… Friends have been incredibly supportive by doing, not just talking. Although it seems all the love stops at IKEA’s door – I STILL can’t get anyone to go there for me!

Seriously though, the kindness has been humbling. And, it makes me wonder what a beautiful world it would be if we treated everyone like they were sick. Unlike cancer, kindness is contagious.


I’m two-thirds of the way through my chemotherapy plan and have already learned a ton about life, about myself and about others. I have a new belief now: there is always something to feel thankful for.

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By Rana Nawas

Rana Nawas is a published writer and sought-after speaker on a mission to inspire women of all backgrounds to shine. Born in England to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Rana grew up like many Western-educated Arabs facing the dichotomy of liberal and traditional values. Her education at Oxford University and Harvard Business School gave her a strong foundation to solve problems and negotiate effectively, which she used over her 17-year corporate career spanning McKinsey & Company’s London Office, the Dubai Government, and GE Capital.
Rana is a mother of two and wife of one, she’s the creator and host of the podcast When Women Win, sharing inspirational stories and tools boss ladies from all walks of life have used along their journeys, and is the chapter president of Ellevate, a global organization that brings professional women together. She has been featured in the press, on TV and on radio and has been labelled a “thought-provoking”, “fact-driven” and “inspiring” speaker.
You can find Rana on Instagram and LinkedIn @rananawas, and her podcast When Women Win on iTunes, Sound Cloud and