Facing your own mortality aged 33 is something most people don’t have to go through. It was an experience that reframed how I live my life. When I first felt a lump in my breast, I was working as a paediatric neurologist at a hospital in Denver, Colorado. We were mid-pandemic, too, so things were pretty intense.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after, beginning months of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. At the time, I was in survival mode, just wanting to get through each day and signing up for every treatment available.
When I had my double mastectomy, I was still working which helped to keep things normal. But looking back, I wish I had taken more time off. We physicians aren’t great at prioritising our own needs. It was tough going, especially during the worst part of chemotherapy, and I ended up a little burned out.
After surgery, I was looking ahead to new things
In the beginning of my cancer diagnosis, I struggled to think about the future. But towards the end, when I started to feel better, my perspective started to change. I underwent a huge surgery to reconstruct my breasts using fat and tissue from my abdomen. By the time I got to my final revision surgery I was looking ahead to new things. Travel was top of my list.
I remember being pulled in by a video for Flash Pack’s Argentina trip on Instagram and, in the spirit of sparking joy, I decided to go ahead and book it. I met with my oncologist just before I left and she was so excited for me. It was hard to believe that I’d been given the all-clear but she encouraged me to drink all the red wine, eat all the steak and just live life again.
I’ve never travelled solo before so I was really nervous on the flight to Buenos Aires. I kept thinking, “What have I signed myself up for?” I didn’t know anyone so I decided to give myself over to the process, by being as open as possible to new people and fresh experiences.
The trip made me realise that I’m still a fun person
That first night in Argentina we did cocktail-making over dinner. The dynamic was super-easy and fun. It’s amazing how quickly you can make friends. Within hours, we were all laughing together and had our arms around each other.
Having had cancer during the pandemic, there was a part of me that worried that I no longer had the social skills to meet new people. But the trip made me realise that, even though my life has changed dramatically in my mid-30s, I’m still a fun person and someone who can be part of this amazing community.
I wasn’t sure how to navigate the cancer chat, either, but I tested the waters with my roommate and everyone was so supportive. It wasn’t a big deal, it just meant they understood that piece of me a little better. There was a feeling you could show up as your authentic self and people would accept that: everyone was so warm, encouraging and generous.
It was a reminder I could rewrite my own history
My favourite part of the adventure was when we ice hiked across the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. As it happens, the date of the hike fell two years to the day from when I started chemotherapy. I had never even seen a glacier let alone trekked across one. It was an amazing experience. I was in awe of how huge the glacier was and the beauty of the 18,000-year-old natural landscape.
I welled up thinking about how, two years prior, there was no way I could have imagined being on the other side of the world, seeing all these incredible sights. It was a powerful reminder that I had gotten past cancer and could now rewrite my own history day by day.
The day-long hike to the Laguna de Los Tres viewpoint in Patagonia was awesome, too. I was the slowest one in the group but I was determined to make it up and everyone cheered me as I arrived at the summit. It didn’t matter how long I took, we all just tackled it together.
Argentina kickstarted what I call ‘the year of Megan’
Coming back from Argentina, I was filled with this newfound sense of joy and happiness – it was a turning point that made me think, “What kind of life do I really want to live?” I’m single and live with my dog but I have the ability to make my own decisions and really go after the things that make me happy and fuel me. I can be fully present at work and look after my mental health, making better decisions that align with my personal needs.
It was a realisation that kicked off what I call “The year of Megan”. I had such a blast in Argentina, I decided to keep going by saying ‘yes’ to everything. Over the past year, I’ve travelled to Montreal, New Zealand, London, Italy and Greece. I’ve stayed with friends I met while Flashpacking and they’ve travelled to stay with me. I’ve changed jobs – still in paediatric neurology – and relocated from Denver to Chicago. I’ve come to understand that joy is a lifestyle that you must actively pursue.
Today, I’m halfway towards the five-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I still have regular checkups and, of course, there are moments when my mind spirals and I worry about the cancer returning. I’m fearful about the idea of more surgeries and chemotherapy, too. After all, that was my life at one point, every day for months on end.
Do the things you want and don’t let life pass you by
When we’re young, many of us assume that we have decades ahead of us. But having that mentality challenged – then being told, yes I am going to live after cancer – has made me far more purposeful.
My advice now is that you never know how long you’re going to be here but you deserve to be happy and joyful. So do the things you want to do and don’t let life pass you by.
Megan Barry is a paediatric neurologist who travelled with Flash Pack to Argentina.
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Images: courtesy of Megan Barry and Flash Pack