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Revels: You have cancer

Our cultures are rich in oral traditions and stories have been used since the beginning of time to record events, share knowledge and pass on traditions. We all have stories that we have heard when we were young about different myths and legends from our cultures. I remember one that my grandma told me when I was young, she used to tell us if we did not listen or behave the Thunderbird would swoop down and take us away. When we were little kids this made us leery of big birds flying over our heads.

My grandma used to tell us stories that would scare us. Some I think were a mixture of Tlingit myth and real events; some were just grandma myth.

I remember another story my grandma told me that scared me; it was about the “Kushtaka.” The Kushtaka isn’t man or animal, it was a shape-shifter. It stayed in the woods, in the mists, and you didn’t know if it meant you harm or was coming to help you. Stories say the Kushtaka was known to help lost hunters find their way back to camp, but it was also known to take you away if you were lost or separated from your tribe, never to be seen again.

It is funny how some of our legends and myths from our childhood stick with us all our lives, especially ones that frightened us. Some of our diseases are like the Kushtaka, scary because you don’t know what it is, or what it will do to you.

The disease I think of that scares most of us, is the story I am sharing with you now.

Two summers ago, I heard the three scariest words: You have cancer.

How could I have cancer? I felt great! I was active! I felt on top of the world! I couldn’t believe it – how could I have cancer?

These feelings are not uncommon when diagnosed with cancer and according to the American Cancer Society’s “The Emotional Impact of a Cancer Diagnosis,” “Your first emotion may be shock, because no one is ever ready to hear that they have cancer. … You may not even believe the diagnosis, especially if you don’t feel sick.”

I didn’t feel sick. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.

I had invasive breast cancer. I am told that my cancer has an aggressive personality. I never knew cancers had personalities, I just thought cancer was cancer, but you can have different stages/different factors that affect your cancer and my cancer is Her2Neu+. We have to be aggressive in treating it and I will be in treatments for a year. All I could think of was my kids, what about my kids?

I’m in survival mode. I couldn’t think straight and I had some decisions to make but I couldn’t think about making decisions – I don’t want to think about “what if?”

So Begins the Ride

I was having all kinds of problems accepting the fact that I had cancer and needed to do chemotherapy and radiation. I didn’t want to lose my hair, I didn’t want to feel like crap, I didn’t want to put my life on hold and I was sick and tired of crying all the time.

Tears, peace, laughter and more tears.

I was doing my best to stay balanced but it is so hard. I expected the up and down emotions, but I was really wishing I did not have cancer – I did not want to deal with it. I’m so exhausted from this whole cancer diagnosis. I’m on a vicious roller coaster ride and I want off!

My faith, my sense of humor and the love of my kids are what helped me make decisions.

I eventually came to grips with my diagnosis. I decided to look at this adventure as a “purging” of sorts, a cleansing, a burning… a friend once told me you have to be completely empty in order to receive God’s gifts, I thought that was so wise.

I decided I would face this dance with cancer and I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was strong before cancer and I’ll continue to be strong with the help of my faith, humor, and the love of my children.

It is amazing what one day and three words can do to a person.

“You have cancer” made me feel like my life spiraled out of control. It was not an easy time but I talked a lot about my feelings; I journaled, beaded, and I helped others with cancer. I did whatever I could to make peace within myself.

Processing these feelings took a lot of work and I sought help from my doctor, a counselor, a cancer support group, a traditional healer and from other cancer survivors. Dealing with cancer was too big of an experience to mess around with by yourself; at least it was for me.

I have been dancing with NED (no evidence of disease) for a year and a half.

When I was diagnosed, I didn’t realize I was going to get so immersed in cancer education, advocacy and survivorship which causes me some conflict. In one way, I just want to put this all behind me, but too much has happened, I cannot stand by and not help those who will follow.

So as you see, I did not turn into the Kushtaka; the Thunderbird did not take me away, instead, I am here another day to share my story.

Laura Revels is a Tlingit originally from southeast Alaska who is a training outreach coordinator for Native People for Cancer Control; two-time breast cancer survivor and advocate. For more information about Laura, visit

If you would like to read more about dealing with a cancer diagnosis please see Cure Today.