‘I’ve never mentioned this, but your dad was in Vietnam and was around that toxic chemical called Agent Orange.’

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“I was born with cancer.

When I was an embryo inside of my mom’s womb cancer cells started to form in and around my reproductive organs.

You would never know I had cancer because I came out looking like a perfectly healthy baby. At four years old my mom felt a large mass inside my abdomen, near my pelvic region. She knew something was wrong.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

I had no idea how terrified and hopeless my mom felt. She always seemed so strong and I never saw her cry.

‘I planned your funeral and even picked out your dress that we would bury you in,’ she told me.

For years I forced my traumatic battle with childhood cancer out of my mind until my mom told me that there never was cancer in our family and perhaps there could be another reason:

‘I’ve never mentioned this, but your dad was in Vietnam and was around that toxic chemical called Agent Orange.’

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war to clear forests, could pass through the DNA of the soldiers to their offspring.

There is no definitive proof that my cancer was caused by this deadly chemical and I’m not here to blame anyone. I simply wanted more information and to know how it all began in the first place.

Cancer can tear families apart and it can be a financial burden on them too. My mom told me my dad lost his job and she was working three jobs to take care of me. On top of that, my mom and dad were going through a divorce.

Just when I was about to complete my chemo and radiation treatments, and go back in for my second surgery, my mom got a call.

‘Jay is dead.’

My dad, Jay, suffered a gunshot to his neck. It was from hunting, they said. Later I learned he committed suicide.

While my dad was laid to rest in his coffin, I silently cried and screamed inside my head saying, ‘Wake up daddy. Please don’t leave me.’

That was the beginning of my life. I felt afraid, unloved and abandoned.

Flash forward to 38 years old. I was diagnosed with cancer, again. AND, was going through a painful divorce.

It felt like history repeating itself.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

Major debulking surgery was required to remove the Stage 3C ovarian cancer that spread into my entire abdominal and pelvic areas. My doctor told me it was like wildfire; once it goes, it spreads like crazy. My rectum, colon, bladder and vagina were affected. All of these organs had to be removed and/or reconstructed.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

‘Can this get any worse?’ I thought as I broke down, sobbing uncontrollably in her arms. And, it did.

My frightened children rejected me after they saw me in the hospital, looking like a corpse a few steps away from death. Who can blame them? I was scared to look at myself in the mirror.

‘I want to leave. I don’t want to see you,’ cried my youngest son.

‘My mom is going to die,’ my daughter Macie told her friend one day in the car as I was driving them to school.

I wanted to die. It wasn’t the first time I felt like dying either.

It felt all too familiar when my friends abandoned me. Who will ever love me? I was truly alone, again.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

My oncologist, Dr.Ilana Cass at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, once told me, ‘You have three beautiful children to live for. This kind of cancer is go BIG or go home.’

It was that moment that made me realize I had been manifesting my own death. I hated myself for all that I had done wrong in my life. I even blamed myself for getting cancer and my dad’s death!

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

I knew I had to change how I was living my life and began to journal and blog about my experience with cancer. I started to reach out to people who could truly support my new life story in a loving and hopeful way. I went to healers, coaches and a shaman who helped me see my worth and value for the first time in my life.

My first step towards healing was letting go of my anger and forgiving myself. Believe me, I had A LOT of anger to release!

I began to find my tribe! Many of my blog readers tell me how much my story gives them hope that they can survive cancer too!

You are important and your story matters. It’s your life, so live it to the fullest. I never would have believed that I could win Latin ballroom competitions like in the show Dancing With The Stars. And I did it! Twice! Dancing is what I live for now.

You can do anything you put your mind to and that you have passion for. Just believe in yourself for a minute at a time. It’s a practice for me too.

My children and I are now closer than ever. After their initial fear and shock watching me struggle for survival, they began to open up and talk to me. I showed them my journals and they began to make their own, expressing their feelings with words and pictures.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

Watching them begin to heal and open their hearts again was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. They are my three miracle babies–their story will be included in my second book that is due to be published next year.

There are no guarantees that my cancer won’t come back. And I have moments when I panic and worry that it could return.

Still, I always tell people, ‘Cancer saved my life.’

Cancer was my wake up call to stop hating myself and begin loving myself.

What I’ve learned from cancer is that each moment I am given is a gift. Every moment that I take a breath is a miracle.

Now I spend time with the people I love and stop to smile at strangers. We have to have compassion for everyone because we have no idea what they could be going through in this moment. We don’t know how much pain they might be in emotionally or physically.

I am a Pilates and yoga teacher and had to work with a colon bag and a catheter bag attached to my body! I had serious body shame after surgery and getting my ileostomy.

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

But, I was a single mom raising three kids and had to work. I put my shame to the side and went to work every day.

Even when my body felt tired and muscles ached I showed up.

There were no safe exercise resources for someone in my position, so I literally had to create my own physical recovery system as I laid in my hospital bed in excruciating pain. I now teach this system, called Cancer Core Recovery, to many others recovering from cancer and abdominal surgeries.

It’s been two years since my last surgery, ileostomy reversal and treatment for ovarian cancer and I’m still NED -no evidence of disease.

People ask all the time how I did it. I believe that it is a mindset. (I’m sure a little luck too.)

I’ll never forget what my surgeon Dr. Cass said to me:

‘Emilee, if anyone can survive, it’s you. You are a healer. 90% of survival is in your head. If you focus on dying you will be one of the 50% that doesn’t live. If you focus on surviving you have a chance.’

Her faith in me helped me heal and survive cancer. I know it’s not all in your head, but that’s what I needed to believe.

One of my favorite quotes that helped me get through some of the toughest moments of my battle with cancer was  ‘Forget all the reasons why it won’t work and believe the one reason why it will.’(― Ziad K. Abdelnour)

These are words I live by every day.

I’m still not physically able to do many of the things I could do before having ovarian cancer. But I apply my own advice that I give to my Pilates and yoga students every day:

It’s about progress, not perfection.

Remember to love and respect yourself, and your body.
And, listen to that quiet voice inside when it tells you something is ‘off’ or not right.

The first signs I noticed that I had cancer seemed like depression or that I was going ‘crazy.’ My tests showed that I was fine, but I knew I wasn’t.

If I hadn’t insisted on having the right tests, I never would have found the cancer and would not be here today to tell my story.

Always listen and trust your inner guidance and you will THRIVE!

In the end love heals. What matters the most is loving and honoring yourself.”

Courtesy Emilee Garfield

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily Garfield,  42, of Santa Barbara, California. You can follow her  journey on Instagram hereSubmit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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