Hi, and welcome to Strive for Five: an accelerated and authentic look back at my four-year journey with stage 4 colon cancer. This is a year-long project as I make my way toward the five-year survival mark, something that everyone seemed to think was impossible back when we started.
You may already know me, but for those who don’t, my name is Gina and four years ago, I was a 45-year-old working mother—happily married with twins plus two amazing stepkids and enjoying a successful career at the ad agency at which I had worked since graduating from college.
When I first started losing weight and feeling tired, I blamed my high-stress job; once a blood test revealed anemia, everyone decided it was most likely a bleeding ulcer.
In fact, it turned out to be stage 4 colon cancer; and all the experts with whom I consulted were convinced I had only one to two years to live. Each time I received that news, I heard a voice in my head say, “You don’t know me,” and something made me listen.
Still, I spent the last four years engaged in the brutal reality of stripping back the person I once tried to be, revealing at last who I really am—which brings us to today.
I fought so hard for so long to stay the person I thought I should be: dragging myself into the office until Covid hit; taking my laptop with me (camera off) into the bathroom; alternately napping and setting alarms to get myself through meetings; using any energy I had for work…and not much else.
The first time my therapist encouraged me to find value in BEING versus DOING, the concept was so foreign to me that I left the session without really understanding what she was talking about. I answered every question she asked about who I was with what I did; and I almost always started with the words, “I drive value by…”
It wasn’t until I was physically robbed of my ability to drive value by doing anything at all that I started to understand what she meant.
Maybe it’s similar for many oldest-born children, who start out trying to please their parents; then extend those same energies to teachers, coaches, bosses, and friends. Just a few months ago, I saw a quote from Brene Brown that hit me at my core: "When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun—and fear is the annoying back seat driver."
After four years with cancer, I have learned how significant a role fear and shame have played in my own life—and how important to finally name them in hopes of letting them go. Perhaps they had always been there in the background, but cancer magnified their presence and made clear how they worked their tentacles into literally every facet of my life, particularly the parts of me that felt the most irritating, embarrassing, and ugly.
Many cancer patients feel shame, even if they rarely articulate it. I joke that the outward anthem of a cancer patient is the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”—and its shadow anthem is the one a patient sings to themselves in the darkest of night: Everything I’ve Done to Deserve This.
It starts with having gotten cancer at all—certainly at the least convenient time—and moves directly into needing help from friends and strangers; vomiting up your supplements; having no appetite when you know you’re supposed to eat; not drinking your green spinach-and-kale smoothie because all you think you can stomach is a McDonald’s cheeseburger; nodding as the cabbie tells you about his friend of a friend who cured themselves on an alkaline diet; and smiling weakly when someone tells you you’re so brave or such a warrior and you think to yourself, honestly, what fucking choice did you have??
But cancer patients do deserve a choice—to take a path that is not (necessarily) Warrior or Withdraw; to make the decisions they want or need to make without feeling shame; and to recognize and name fear in hopes of being better able to navigate it.
On September 11, 2022, I’ll hit the four-year anniversary of my diagnosis—and I’ll be within striking distance of a five-year survival rate, a goal which should have seemed impossible back when we started this journey.
That’s the day I’ll officially be launching a year-long content series called Strive for Five where I share an accelerated and authentic look back on my four-year journey.
Here on Substack, I’ll share a regular emailed newsletter which pairs my old status updates with new commentary, sharing the behind the scenes details we didn’t share back then, when we were literally scared out of our minds but taking to social media to pretend everything was OK.
You can also find me on TikTok as ginabjacobson; or on Instagram at ginabjac. There’s nothing there yet, but we’ll start posting in mid-September.
I am so excited you’ve decided to join me as I strive for five!
I’m so happy for you and Per that you have made it so far. Thank you for taking the time to share your journey with the rest of us. I look forward to the upcoming content and congratulating you on your 5 year anniversary.
Gina, I was shocked to read your post on linked in since I left the ad sales business. You have always been an amazing woman and I am so looking forward to reading your story. They definitely don’t know you. Proud of you. Thank you for sharing. I wish you all the best, joy of life and many experiences to come! Jennifer