How could an otherwise healthy woman be diagnosed with stage IV throat and neck cancer? It happened to Denise DeSimone. She was given three months to live, but managed to beat cancer and resume her passion for singing. On July 14th, 2007, just 22 months after her diagnosis, she sang the national anthem before 35,000 fans at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Now, the minister, speaker and author of From Stage IV to Center Stage talks to SheKnows about how she faced her diagnosis, kept singing and what she has to say to other women battling cancer.
Denise DeSimone: I was diagnosed with stage IV throat and neck cancer. I was given one round of chemo then decided chemo was not for me. I endured 40 treatments of radiation to my head and neck, which left me with no salivary glands except for one in the front of my lower jaw.
A few months after radiation ended I had a neck dissection, a surgery that removed the entire left side of my neck. Five years is the time it takes for doctors to categorize a patient into remission. My five years was this past May of 2011.
Denise DeSimone: My life as I knew it would never be the same. Never, ever, ever. Nothing in my life would ever be the same. I had no idea what that all meant. My mind raced with thoughts of everything I ever wanted to do and didn't do. Questions of how much time I had now. How would I share the devastating news with all those I love so dearly?
Above all, my mind circled round and round the thought, How did this happen? I was a health nut. I just rode 87 miles on my bike in one day. I swam three days a week. I walked an average of ten miles each week. I lifted weights and worked out at the gym as often as I could. Sure, maybe I ate a few too many strands of red licorice with red dye No. 3 in it, and dessert always, and maybe I didn't get enough sleep, but by all measures I was considered a health nut. Surely, this diagnosis was some kind of mistake but surely, not one I had made.
Denise DeSimone: Throughout my life I always had a song in my heart and head that would find its way to my lips at various times throughout the day. I got used to going without food, but it was always a challenge having my singing voice silenced for so long. I held the vision and the belief that my voice would return and I held that vision often. I would picture myself on stage in front of an audience singing beautiful songs.
Our talents and our hobbies are from our soul, and nothing, not even cancer, can take those away from us. Our minds connected to our soul's desire can create miracles of manifestation and return to us what is ours to keep.
Denise DeSimone: All things worked for good, and everything in life is divinely guided. And when circumstances like cancer bubble up through the many layers of universal truth we are better served when we trust the process. There is a Buddhist teaching, "All suffering comes from resisting reality." Resisting reality will cause more suffering. I honored myself and kept my vibration high and did not want create more stress. I adjusted and accepted what had happened.
Denise DeSimone: In my heart of hearts, I knew that waging a war with something that was already raging within me would be ludicrous. I realized this cancer may be the most profound blessing of my life. I had already had insights about not wanting to "battle" my cancer. I began a dialogue with my cancer and talked to it as I would to a friend. I asked the cancer questions and I wrote down the answers -- every word that came through.
I would sit in my Adirondack chair, close my eyes and slide into a deep meditation. Twenty minutes later, I would reach for my pen and pad. I conversed with my cancer like I would a friend, a trusted friend. I was totally honest. Since we were going to be engaged in intimate dialogue, I thought the cancer and I ought to be on a first-name basis. I named it what it was, a pain in the neck -- PIN. I gave PIN a pen, and permission to tell me the truth.
The most important lesson PIN taught me was to love myself unconditionally because the more I loved myself the less reason there was for PIN to stick around.
Denise DeSimone: First and foremost, be gentle with yourself and know you didn't do anything wrong. I would encourage them to dialogue with their cancer as I did and learn what lessons there are to learn. Choosing to step into a victim role will not serve you. Befriending my cancer as opposed to battling it was critical to my overall health. Clearly, there is an opportunity for a paradigm shift from the way our culture perceives the healing process.
Entering this new phase of my life, I was thankful for the spiritual foundation I had built. My understanding of universal truth that everything in life is by divine design offered me insight that my situation was part of that truth. My faith was strong and it was being tested. "Faith, not fear" became my new motto.
There is no mistaking how well-versed our culture is in "battling" cancer. We cannot pick up one piece of literature, or search any place on the Internet or speak with anyone regarding cancer without reading or hearing about the "battle." "So and so lost their battle." "This one was battling cancer." Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I did not want to battle it and they may choose not to as well. I befriended my cancer. Obviously, my choice flew in the face of society's approach to cancer.
Until my experience with cancer, I had never given much thought to the word disease. When we "dis" something we distort and disrespect it. Dis-allowing ourselves the truth of who we are is a difficult and rigid way to live.
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