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One woman’s fight against cancer brings lessons of resilience in difficult times

Getting through a pandemic takes perseverance. Fighting breast cancer as a single mother while getting through a pandemic takes something extraordinary. It’s why Beth Wilson has the potential to teach us all a few things about strength, determination and gratitude.

Beth Wilson

Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began, Wilson was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at age 38. She recalls dark days as she wondered about her life, facing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy – if things would go well.

“I was scared,” Wilson recalled. “Before I knew the severity of my situation and, until I got more information, I was just simply terrified of what would happen to me, what I would have to go through, and mostly, what would happen to my kids if this (cancer) was to take me from them.”

Working with the support and expertise of the doctors, nurses and staff at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in Waterford, Wilson marshalled her inner strength.

“I knew my mental health was going to need to be a priority,” she said. “I knew I was in for the battle of my life. I have worked really hard on creating a positive narrative in my life. I’ve been able to find a positive in every negative situation I’ve had in my life. The most important thing I did was focus on each thing as it happened. I made self-care a priority. Each test, each result, each step of my treatment, each new doctor and facility. I didn’t think about all of that, it would have been far too overwhelming.”

One step at a time, Wilson had a successful surgery, then chemotherapy. And then COVID-19 hit the region. “It was very difficult because some of my care directives were forced to change,” she said. “But that too ended up being a blessing in disguise. I was able to get my radiation done weeks sooner and enjoyed the beautiful weather and time off from work.”

Recently, Wilson rang the gong at the Smilow Care Center in Waterford – a symbolic and joyous opportunity offered to those who successfully complete their treatments. Smiling beneath her mask, Wilson struck the gong with gusto and triumph as her own spirit, her loving family, and the caregivers and support staff at Smilow helped her overcome the biggest challenge of her life.

“I started crying as soon as I walked in the building that day because everyone on the staff was so excited for me,” Wilson said. “They’d been seeing me for months and everyone was like my extended family.”

Wilson’s biological family was also on hand. While no visitors could enter the Smilow Care Center because of coronavirus restrictions, Wilson’s children, parents and other loved ones gathered outside the first-floor windows to look in and cheer as she struck the gong. “I was not prepared for what I saw,” she said, referring to family outside the windows.

“I was not prepared to see so many people coming out of their shelters to support me. It was completely, totally overwhelming and my heart just burst.”

These days, when Wilson has follow-up appointments at Smilow, “I feel like I’m on an episode of Cheers,” she said. “Everyone there knows me, and I had more support than I knew what to do with.”

Beth Wilson

Wilson shares her outlook on life as a cancer survivor as a path to navigate through a pandemic as well. “I would say to anyone being diagnosed with cancer or facing a difficult challenge in life, the first thing is, breathe,” she said. “You are loved and worthy of support. Allow people to help you.

“The second thing,” she said, “is to not be a victim. Only allow positive and supportive people around you. Third, trust your gut and listen to your body. This one is important! Treatment is no walk in the park, but if you focus on gratitude, grace will naturally follow.

“I have truly learned how to take a bad feeling or negative situation and turn it around to be a source of change, drive and positivity in my life,” Wilson said. “The clarity I found in many of my relationships – learning who was truly here for me – I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.

“I have a theory that beating cancer has made me impervious to most fears that come up now,” she said. “I just feel like there’s nothing I can’t handle.”

Learn more about the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in Waterford.