What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger: Why Being a Cancer Survivor Doesn’t Define Me

I am Mary Helen Darah, cancer survivor NOT cancer survivor, Mary Helen Darah. I cannot tell you how long and difficult the journey was for me to finally make that distinction.

Sign up for our Friends for Life newsletter to receive more stories by Chrys Peterson, as well as healthy living advice and recipes. Click the photo to get started.
Sign up for our Friends for Life newsletter to receive more stories by Mary Helen Darah, as well as healthy living advice and recipes. Click the photo to get started.

Being a cancer survivor is a large part of who I am, but I no longer give it front billing. The “Reader’s Digest” condensed version of my journey consisted of a bilateral mastectomy, hysterectomy, oophorectomy, reconstructive surgery, six rounds of chemo, 52 weeks of Herceptin injections (for Her2 positive breast cancer), a diminished heart function after said injections, and to really make life a bit dicey, two pulmonary emboli, commonly known as blood clots, in my lung.

I also continue to deal with memory issues — sticky notes are my best friends — and the occasional moments of panic before annual checks. It has been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If this is the case, I believe I could bench-press a Buick by now.

Let’s Be Positive
I am stronger, wiser, more resilient and appreciative of memory-making moments, big and small, thanks to being a member of what I like to call the “pink sorority.” Although, being a member of this incredible crew came with a brutal “initiation.”

It has been an honor and privilege to be in this group of supportive, fiercely strong warriors. In the first years of my survivorship, I became entrenched in the cause. I spoke, wrote, attended events and was even “auctioned off” for a dinner date at a charity function (don’t panic people, my Mom and Dad ended up being the highest bidders).

I still do what I can to spread awareness and support organizations that raise funds for research and to assist those who cannot afford treatment, but I needed to step back a bit. Being a cancer survivor was beginning to define me. My personal identity, passions, and purpose before my diagnosis were beginning to blur and lose focus.

I now find one on one mentoring the most rewarding way I can make a difference. I know the importance of being the “exhibit A” to other survivors and giving them concrete proof that there is life after cancer.

Being a survivor, you know that the dreaded “R” word (reoccurrence) is always a probability. I also know that I am so fortunate to not be living with a stage four diagnosis, where having any escape from its clutches must take unimaginable, immense effort.

That being said, I strive to be a living example that you can put cancer in its place. It is “behind” Mary Helen, not in front.

The Flip Side
Fine, I’ll admit it. During moments of weakness I have been known to bust out Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” or “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor at the top of my lungs. Music is very therapeutic you know. It was during one of my outbursts that I realized the lyrics following, “I will survive” are not,”Her2 positive breast cancer,” which brings me to my next point. I am a firm believer that we are all surviving something.

I used to babysit the child of my parent’s friends, the Wajskols. They celebrated their first American Thanksgiving with us. We played games after dinner and I will always remember the first time I saw the tattooed number on the arm of the family’s patriarch when he rolled up his sleeves. Dr. Wajskols survived Auschwitz but his parents were not as fortunate.

I also have the blessing of knowing and loving Susan Hagemeyer who has an extremely rare disease that I can never pronounce correctly. Statically, she shouldn’t be on this side of grass yet this 3 foot wonder is heading off to college on her own two feet after miraculously moving beyond the confinements of her wheelchair.

I will argue that their survivorship is far more worthy of admiration than mine. I am also empathically aware of my fellow cancer survivors represented by all colors of the rainbow.

Although I truly appreciate the support and especially the funds for research, pink seems to be the ribbon color of choice for consumer goods. I am still anxiously waiting for the dark blue ribbon representing colon cancer to show up on my laundry detergent.

Letting Go
One of the hardest things I have experienced as a cancer survivor are the goodbyes. I’ve had far too many of them. Nora, Gretchen, Chris, Liz—amazing women who lost their battles with the enemy. Their passing left me angry; that I will turn into motivation to keep fighting for a cure. I am left with sadness; that reminds to reach out to all the survivors in their time of need. Thankfully, they left me with an endless wake of love which I will drift in through the voyage ahead as Mary Helen Darah, cancer survivor.

Sign up for our Friends for Life newsletter to receive more stories by Mary Helen Darah, as well as healthy living advice and recipes.


MaryMary Helen Darah is an award-winning columnist who has appeared in numerous publications in the Toledo area and beyond. She has also been honored for her work and inspiration as a breast cancer survivor. 

“The Mother of Mayhem” has a continual source of material through interactions with daughters Lauren, Helena, and Maria; and international student, May Liu from China.

Mary Helen looks forward to writing and sharing the stories of members of our community who turn the ordinary into the extraordinary while delivering a dose of what she feels is the best medicine — laughter — in her monthly column, The Mother of Mayhem.