[Guest Blog by Michelle Burleigh]
Life was hectic before cancer, I was always on the go. For some reason, I moved through the world with this constant hum inside my mind and body that told me the weight of the world rested squarely on my shoulders. Between a successful career that I loved and family, I never stayed in one place long.
In hindsight, I wasn’t happy. I had continued to push myself even when I knew I needed to recharge. There were people who needed me, and relied on me. I couldn’t let them down. In fact, even when I started feeling sick, I told myself there was no time for that. It wasn’t until the night of my 5-year-old daughter’s school Christmas party that my husband said, ‘Do you think it’s time to go to the hospital?’
I couldn’t remember a time before that moment where I was tired enough to succumb. I knew I should have gone to the hospital but the thought of sitting in the hospital for any length of time was unthinkable. So, we went home.
The next morning, I sat in emergency, thankful and only on the insistent recommendation of the TeleHealth nurse I had spoken to only an hour before. I was annoyed that I was missing work to be there. A blood draw, and a couple of hours later, a doctor sat in front of me and asked me how old my children were.
It was at that moment I knew I had pushed myself too far. My heart sank. I didn’t need her to say it, to know what was coming next, ‘You have leukemia and you need to go to a treatment center immediately to start chemotherapy.’
It was nine days before my thirty-seventh birthday and all I could think was, People don’t come back from leukemia. I am going to die.
I couldn’t fathom a world where my kids graduated from college, experienced their first heartbreak, or had children of their own where I wasn’t there to help.
Next thing I knew, I was sitting in a cancer center 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 public speaking.
But I realized at that moment, despite grim odds, I wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t go anywhere. My kids needed me and there was much work to do still. I realized that all the doing I had been trapped in had always been my choice and it was time to choose differently.
The following three years were some of the most grueling 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 which focuses on my experiences, I began giving public talks in support of many organizations, doing fantastic work supporting people with or surviving cancer, and in October 2020 branched out into supporting the global immunocompromised population with a FaceBook support group; Immunocompromised People Are Not Expendable.
Despite my fears and the personal struggles which I was faced with and chose to overcome, I had come to know so many beautiful souls, who in hushed voices, shared their own stories of struggle. I was compelled to share what I had learned, and it continues to drive my passion for raising awareness and creating meaningful change in healthcare.
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 exhaustiveness I had ever strived for before could ever have achieved the same feeling of satisfaction or joy I’ve been able to find since. It delivered my passion for helping others. And for that, I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.
Michelle Burleigh received an abrupt interruption to her financial career, when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer; acute promyelocytic leukemia. At the time of diagnosis, Michelle had less than a day left to live and the chances of surviving the first ten days of treatment was grim. After a twenty-six-month long battle, Michelle is now cancer free and determined to assist others by sharing her personal experience and insights. She gives impactful talks to raise awareness of acute blood cancers and the importance of self-advocacy, and seeks to influence a more patient-centric healthcare model using her more than ten years of experience in business process improvement. Learn more about Michelle at SoYouveGotCancer.ca, and follow her on Facebook @Michelle.Burleigh.7, on Twitter @ShePersevered_, and on Instagram @She_Persevered_Still.
Michelle is part of the Official NCSD Speakers Bureau Roster. To access the Roster, register your event today.