How cancer has made her stronger

How cancer has made her stronger

At age 46, I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. I was relatively healthy. I had a dream life – amazing friends; my incredible and large family, happily married to someone who balances me, I ride horses and paddle board. I love life. I also love my job; and I am great at it.

I have taught other nurses about how to care for their patients, how to love their patient and hate the disease. I love to teach nursing and spend time teaching compassionate care. But I had no idea truly what compassionate care meant really until I had to live it. I HAD NO IDEA.

Then on May 5, 2015, I had my colonoscopy at 9:30 a.m. That was when my world changed.

Let me tell you, I was bullied into doing this colonoscopy by my doctor-friend, who truly ended up saving my life. I blew off the few symptoms I had. She pushed me and nagged me to follow up. She ended up threatening to drive me to the exam herself and sit on me until I took care of it.

Like all good ICU nurses, I like to control well everything. That day was no exception. I controlled who took care of me, my doctors, and nurses. I controlled who did my anesthesia. I warned everyone that I don’t like nor do I do well with medications. When I woke up and questioned my CRNA, a dear friend of mine, who had tears in his eyes as I questioned and quizzed him about my medication and my course of care during anesthesia. When my doctor came in, I knew… I just knew what she was going to say.

I don’t remember a ton about that day, but I remember I was worried about my husband. She hugged me and said they took some biopsies, but likely, it was cancer. I went home, I grieved and then I started again. I was like, “I can deal with this. I am a nurse for goodness sake, I have seen and cared for and truly loved my patients, I can do this.”

On Monday at work, I talked to my oncologist in the hallway and asked him if I could come see him. I told him what I knew, forwarded what I had and made my appointment. Still trying to control everything, I made plans and decided to make my diagnosis “Facebook official.” I announced that I have colon cancer and that I had a plan. But I had no idea what I was heading into.

People reacted to the news with kindness, fear and pity. That was the worst, I didn’t and don’t want people to feel bad for me. Afterall, I had a plan. But then, I was sick and it fell apart. I cried, I hurt a lot, I was sick and I wanted to let it all go. People don’t know that part, or at least I didn’t, before I was sick. The overwhelmingness of it all sometimes.  The sense of being alone among those who care about you, and wanting to be strong for them, when all you want to do is fall apart.

Then I had a friend get sick too. I was determined to not let them feel alone. So, through Facebook, text and regular hospital check ins, we supported each other. We still support each other. We cry with each other. And we celebrate survival because that is the Plan. We also share our fears, before every CT scan or MRI. Even if you know it is likely good news, it is still terrifying. That’s another part people don’t share, that cancer is always lurking because it sits like a predator waiting to return.

So, yes, I hate cancer. But I love those who have come into my life because of it and have made me stronger. I love my friends who stood by me. I love my family, both the one I was born into and those who I choose. All of them loved me through it. My healthcare team who puts up with me and still smiles when I see them and sometimes gives me hugs, thank you.

I am stronger. I am a warrior and I am a survivor because of you all. After all of the pain and struggle and the fear, I came through it a bit like a new butterfly. Changed, but the same Mary 2.0.

Mary Simmert-Eschel is a nurse in the imaging department at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.

Want to learn more about your colorectal cancer risk? Take a free online quiz.

Related Posts



  1. I understand some people find the idea that “my life is better because I had cancer,” but that is not the experience of all cancer survivors. Articles like this can add to the guilt and depression – “well if this person feels stronger and better, why don’t I?”

  2. I don’t know that I would say that my life is better because of cancer, except that I am a better nurse and nurse practitioner for sure. This has been a portion of my experience, and it is not the my whole story by any means. I do understand there is a sense of guilt and often depression; I did experience that too. This article barely touches on the ups and downs that I experienced , much less that every patient experiences. It is never my intention that someone might feel “less than” because their experience is different from mine. We are all on a different journey, with different challenges. This disease is terrible it takes so much from someone and it is my hope that someone that may be able to relate to my experiences and know that they are not alone. Thank you for your perspective I appreciate that you would stand up and say something.

  3. Hi Mary- I had a slight brush with Cancer a few years ago. I am not a nurse, I work in support services. That said, Cancer is a scary word at any level. I am glad you had a great support team. It is no doubt an eye opener while looking at things through a different lense. I was pulled out of my MRI three times because I am claustrophobic, I was a nightmare of a patient I am sure. My care team was amazing as well!
    You are right about the fear of cancer constantly lurking. It is something I fear every time I get a mammogram. Thanks for sharing your story! I hope you have a continued path of wellness from this point forward!

About the Author

Author Gravatar
Mary Simmert-Eschel

Mary Simmert-Eschel is a nurse in the imaging department at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital.