Given a third chance and choosing to grow despite pain, fear, complications and frustration

"With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose." Wayne W. Dyer's words make more sense today than ever to me. I have chosen to grow.

After surviving Hodgkin's lymphoma when I was just 17 years old, now at 39 and the mother of three girls, I faced the diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor earlier this year. I needed brain surgery right away.


Most of the fears and concerns I had before my brain surgery — knowing all the possible complications I could have — unfortunately came true. Right after surgery, I faced not only pain, but also immobilization of my right side, weakness and vision problems, along with memory and speech issues.

This is not my usual column, not my "always try to be positive" column. It is a "goodbye for now" column.

Even though I knew as a nursing student what could possibly happen after a brain surgery, I was nowhere near prepared to face the reality of it. I literally felt like I was born again, as I had to re-learn how to go to the bathroom, how to hold utensils to eat, how to write. Everything was foggy. Sometimes I would ask myself if everything happening around me was real or if it was just a dream. Sometimes my brain would make me so confused … I couldn't remember the name of my favorite actors or my favorite songs.

Even though I knew I was being given a third chance at life — and I was grateful for it — everything was so incredibly hard. I went from being a very strong, independent woman, full of energy and dreams, to a woman unable to move part of her body, depending on others for even the minimal tasks.

One very early morning, before the sun came out, I was half-asleep and a song started playing on the TV at the end of the movie: "Have I Told You Lately."

Suddenly, I recognized it. I opened my eyes as I remembered it was one of my favorite songs. I even remembered the one karaoke night when I sang it to my husband. Then, I started crying. I finally cried. I'd been trying so hard to be strong for my family, I'd held my feelings back, all the tears and the frustration. I was finally letting everything out in the darkness of my room, alone, as I laid on my hospital bed.

I cried because I felt frustrated, lost, so far from my old self. I couldn't understand why this was happening to me and I was unsure if I would ever recover completely. I felt hopeless and in pain, physically and emotionally.

Then, I looked out the window and I saw the sunrise. It was so beautiful, it brightened all my room, showing me that it rises majestically after darkness, and so could I.

That was such a powerful moment. I decided to clean up my tears and rise from the darkness. I decided to take that experience and learn from it, grow from it. I decided if I wanted to get better, it was all on me. I have to put in the effort; I have to believe I can do it, no matter how hard it seems. I have to let go of the frustration and turn it into a powerful drive.

It will soon be three months since my surgery. I spent 17 days at Johns Hopkins Hospital, doing rehabilitation therapies four hours every day. I pushed myself as hard as I could every single day. I did my best — and continue to do so — to get my old self back. Rehabilitation has been hard and exhausting, but it's paying off. I've regained movement in my right side. I can walk without a walker and most of the time even without the cane. I recently walked 1.5 miles with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life group at FallFest. I can write again, even though my handwriting still needs some work. I am slowly getting stronger and my speech and vision are better.

This moment in my life, though hard, has taught me many valuable lessons. There's a reason for me to be here, I must have a purpose in this life if I have been given a third chance to live it. I am definitely stronger than I think; I have to believe in myself. When you put your mind and heart into something, there's nothing stopping you from achieving it. I also learned that what you give in life, you receive.

In the words of Maya Angelou, "Life truly gives back, many times over, what you put into it." I never knew how much impact my words could have in so many lives. I've been so moved and thankful for all of you who have sent me get-well messages, emails, postcards and have supported me through all this. I am humbled to know that so many people care about me. All your prayers and wishes strengthened me, carried me through. You have all made a difference in my life and I will forever be grateful.

As Paulo Coelho said: "The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times."

I still have a lot of work to do, I am yet a work in progress, but I am getting there. I'll be back soon.

Marta Cruz-Alicea is a stay-at-home mother and two-time cancer survivor who lives in Westminster. She is currently on medical hiatus from her bi-weekly column that previously appeared in the Times on Sundays.