Michelle Burleigh - Learning self-love through cancer
Learning Self-Love Through Cancer
‘Michelle, you need to slow down or you’re going to get sick’. That is what my best friend used to say to me before I actually did get sick. Life was hectic, I was always on the go. Need to be here, need to go there, don’t forget about this or that. In hindsight, I wasn’t happy. I was always exhausted, stressed out and anxious. In fact, I put myself so far on the backburner that even when I started feeling sick, I told myself I didn’t have time to be sick. So, I just kept going. It wasn’t until the night of my 5-year-old daughters school Christmas party that my husband said to me, ‘Do you think it’s time to go to the hospital?’
The next morning, I found myself in emergency, annoyed that I was missing work to be there. Two hours after my arrival, a doctor sat in front of me, asking me how old my children were. It was in that moment I knew I had pushed myself too far. She asked me if I wanted anyone with me while she delivered the results of the tests. I didn’t need her to say it, but she did anyway, ‘You have leukemia and you need to go to a treatment centre immediately to start chemotherapy’.
It was seven days before my thirty-seventh birthday and all I could think was, ‘People don’t come back from leukemia. I am going to die’.
It was the scariest moment of my life. I couldn’t fathom a world where my kids graduated from university without me there to cheer them on, or a world where I didn’t teach them how to drive a car, or hold them when they had their hearts broken for the very first time.
Next thing I knew I was sitting in a cancer centre bed hooked up to three IVs in a race against time. A nurse stood beside me preparing my new cocktail of pills and I said to her, ‘You know, I think I’m going to write a book and do some public speaking’. I could barely believe the words had come out of my mouth. I hadn’t written in twenty years and my number one fear had always been (up until a few hours before) public speaking. But I realized in that moment, despite grim odds, I wasn’t going anywhere. My kids needed me and there was much work to do still. I realized that all the ‘doing’ I had spent all those years trapped in had always been my choice and it was time to choose differently.
The following three years were some of the most gruelling days of my life. While the doctors and nurses helped me fight for my life, I also fought the narratives we are taught as young people, to unlearn the perfectionism the world insists we strive for. This was no small feat. These habits were so ingrained in who I had become that I was nearly willing to die for it. Throughout my treatment, I came to understand that to truly live, we must be self-loving, empathic and compassionate and to achieve such a thing required something I had never allowed myself to be; vulnerable. To simply be me. So I took every opportunity that arose to hold myself accountable to personal growth. I launched a blog in July 2018, www.soyouvegotcancer.ca, which focuses on my experiences, I started giving public talks in support of many organizations, like Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada, doing fantastic work supporting people with or surviving cancer, and doing interviews to tell the story of who I had been, what I had learned and who I was striving to be.
While I would not wish this journey on anyone, I can say that it taught me some of the most valuable lessons of my life. It taught me to slow down, to truly open my eyes and be willing to accept the beauty that is always around us and in us. To prioritize myself because no amount of busyness or exhaustedness I had ever strived for before could ever have achieved the same feeling of satisfaction or joy I’ve been able to find since. And for that, I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.