Courage Crush: Sherilyn Villareal, Mother, Developer, Cancer Survivor
by Sarah on December 5, 2016
I admired Sherilyn from afar long before we became friends. The way she lives her life with intentionality and strength has become one of our deepest places of connection. She is a force of embodied renewal and tenacious faith. That’s why I have a Courage Crush on her. Check out her inspiring story (below) of courage through facing death and overcoming cancer. And, pass it along to those who need some inspired hope today.
In the Fall of 2013, I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer that left me with more-likely-to-die-than-live kind of odds. It’d be an understatement to say that this came at a really bad time. In the immediate years prior, we had experienced multiple diagnoses accompanied by devastating health challenges in 2 of our small children: Down Syndrome, autism, open-heart surgery, major skull reconstruction, eye surgeries, countless therapies… and the list goes on. All of this had left us financially drained and emotionally exhausted. We hadn’t even had time to recover from all of the carnage when this new medical nightmare came knocking at our door.
I grieved instantly and deeply when I heard the news.
I wasn’t at all afraid to die, which came as quite a surprise to me. I was, however, completely undone at the thought of leaving my husband and three kids behind to suffer yet another debilitating blow alone. We were barely hanging on by a thread as it was. How could I just up and leave them to deal with all of this pain on their own? It didn’t feel fair.
For some reason, my first instinct was to pray – like the full-on wailing, ugly cry, snot-running-down-your-face kind of praying. I begged God to save my life and spare my family the pain of losing me. Honestly, I didn’t really expect him to answer me – or at least not to grant my request anyway. After all, he had allowed so many other hard things to happen to us already. Why should this be any different? But something deep within me kept screaming that this was not how it was supposed to end, that it wasn’t good, and that my kids weren’t supposed to be without their mother yet. I asked God to give me a sign – some way of knowing how whether or not he wanted the story to go, and whether I should prepare to fight or prepare to die.
I’m not sure why… but he answered me. Not only did he let me live, but he also gave me a miraculous sign to let me know from the very beginning. You can read the full story here: http://blog.sherilynvillareal.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Hezekiah-Story.pdf.
The only “courage” my fight with cancer required was a choice to believe. I am a doubter and questioner by nature – always have been – but for some reason this time I just believed God. Somehow, I just knew that I would be ok, that my family would be ok, and that good would come on the other side of this battle. My faith was my courage. The rest was just finding a way to cope with the temporary discomforts of treatment.
Treatment was challenging – 6 months of chemo, double mastectomy, radiation, and complete hysterectomy – but in the end, I got to live. I still struggle with survivor guilt sometimes. I’m not sure why God let me live. Sadly, kids lose their mothers all of the time. Why did he agree with me that this wasn’t how my story was supposed to end? I’m not sure I’ll ever fully know the answer to that. I don’t know why he agreed… I just know that he did agree. He let me live. My story isn’t over yet. One day it will be… but not yet. I have more to do here.
Ironically, I’m finding that living life after cancer is requiring far more courage than living life with cancer ever did. I feel much more responsible to get it right now. I want to love my family well and live a life that really matters. He let me stay. He gave me more time. I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to get this one wrong.
There’s something intrinsically transformational about suffering. It can’t help but change you. Not in every way, just in some ways. You’d think battling a life-threatening illness would teach you not to sweat the small stuff – that you’d naturally be able to put everyday challenges into better perspective. That’s not really been my experience. I still worry about finances, stress about the future, and get really annoyed when I have to wait in long lines at the grocery store. Life is still just life, even after mine almost ended.
In other, more fundamental ways, though, I do notice a seismic internal shift. I notice, for example, that I am much more compassionate and generous than I used to be. This is not part of my natural disposition; it’s something that’s emerging from hardship. I see suffering in the world and it feels deeply personal now. I get it. I understand it. I’ve lived it. I’m newly motivated to make a difference and help people in a way that I wasn’t before.
I know first hand how much even the smallest gestures of kindness, empathy, and care can mean.
I’m also now more keenly aware of my own limitations – in my physical body, in my character, in my emotional stability… in all areas, really. This new self-awareness is cultivating in me the art of dependence. I’m slowly losing the “I’ve got this on my own” mental handicap that has kept me from fully thriving. We truly are stronger together than we are apart. I’ve always known that I should believe this, but now I really do believe it.
I don’t yet know exactly what to do with these changes or how to live them out, but I am thankful that the transformation has begun. I can’t help but think this was all part of the plan somehow – part of my preparation for Life 2.0. I can already see it impacting the way that I parent my kids and love my husband. I am curious to see where it’s all leading.
My advice for others going through something similar:
Eat a bowl of strawberries – Probably the best advice that I ever received was from a friend well acquainted with suffering. When I was crying about my loss or panicking about my future, she would simply suggest that I go eat a bowl of strawberries. Metaphorically, eating a bowl of strawberries is indulging in good, healthy (non-addictive) pleasure. I am a problem-solver and fixer by nature, habitually trying to change my circumstance, shift my perspective, or lean into some spiritual truth. In many areas of life, this serves me well. Not so much in suffering. There was nothing I could do to cure my cancer, reverse my loss, or remove my pain. This was a problem I simply couldn’t fix. My friend knows this. She lives with her own suffering on a daily basis. She has learned to give herself permission to pursue healthy, healing pleasure in the midst of her problems, not just at the end of them. By suggesting that I go eat a bowl of strawberries, she was inviting me to extend myself the same permission. No need to fix this one, just appreciate the beauty that is still here even in the midst of this pain.
Hold on for sandbars – Experiencing grief and trauma can feel a lot like drowning in an ocean. Giant waves of painful emotion continually crash over you, making it hard to breath and impossible to rest. The comforting truth about this ocean of suffering, though, is that it’s filled with sandbars – unexpected moments of groundedness lying just beneath the surface. You’ll just wake up one morning with an unexplainable peace and unusual clarity. You’ll be able to appreciate the ocean as a whole, beyond just the surrounding waves, to see how far you’ve come, how strong you’ve been, and how much ocean there is yet to travel. These sandbar moments won’t last forever – just long enough for you to come up for air and rest a bit – but they’re enough to get you through. In my own suffering, I started to notice the faithfulness of this pattern. The suffocating waves would always come, but so would the sandbars. So, when you find yourself in the throws of the crashing waves, my advice to you is hold on for the sandbars. Trust that they’re coming and that they’re enough to get you through.
Know that the story isn’t over yet – When suffering is at its peak, it can be hard to see any good ahead. The pain feels unending and the future, bleak. Once when I found myself in the middle of this dark pit, I came across this video teaching on suffering by Rob Bell: https://vimeo.com/138224012. God used Bell’s words to encourage me that my story wasn’t over yet – no matter what happened. Whether I lived or died, it wasn’t over. More was yet to come. And one day I’d understand why all of it had to happen. One day. We may think we see the writing on the wall, the sad trajectory of our miserable little lives and know how it all will end, but the truth is that we don’t.
None of us really knows what tomorrow holds. It’s not over until it’s over.
True wisdom – the kind that sustains a person through suffering – acknowledges the grand narrowness of our own perspective and trusts that there may be way more going on here than any of us realize. So, when you find yourself in your own dark pit, know that the story isn’t over yet.
A letter to my 20-year-old self:
Dear 20-year-old Me,
Congratulations on beginning your junior year of college! This will be a life-changing year for you!
Enclosed in this envelope, you’ll find a key. This key is my gift to you. If you look closely, you’ll notice the word “DOUBT” inscribed on it. Hold onto this key as a reminder that doubt – yes, even the doubt that you’re now terrified to acknowledge – can open many doors for you in life. Your authentic questions are way more valuable than you understand right now. Embrace your creativity and hunger for truth. Don’t let others tell you what this should look like or what form it should take. You be you. There’s brilliance inside!
Follow your heart… follow your doubts. If you do, you will find faith in the end. Don’t worry, it won’t be the plastic religiosity that now surrounds you, and you won’t have to make believe for the sake of belonging anymore. Faith will surprise you. God will surprise you.
I hesitate to tell you this now… but the road ahead gets dark. Very dark and very hard. The details would only overwhelm you, but you’ll face challenges that you can’t even fathom surviving. Your very life will be threatened. When that day does come, it won’t be the graduate school you attended or the career you chose (the things that consume your focus right now) that matter. In the end, it’ll be your faith that sees you through. So, go ahead… risk doubt now. Discover what you really believe. Be courageously authentic, no matter what it costs. It really is a matter of life and death.
See you on the other side,
Your 40-year-old Future Self