LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST
My name is Colleen Burris, I am 30 years old and I live in Saskatoon with my husband and four-year-old daughter. I’m a Saski girl, I grew up on a farm outside of Birch Hills with 5 siblings and a father who raised us kids in faith. After graduation I worked at an airport in the oil field for many years and that’s really where my story begins… it’s actually quite similar to the book ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. If you are not familiar with the book or TV series it starts where everything is pretty normal and then something tragic happens. For a time things are hard but it doesn’t last and there is a period of relief. Then this repeats a few more times before the book ends somewhat ambiguous leaving the ending unknown.
My journey is similar in many ways and my story begins in 2012. Everything was pretty normal, I worked as I said in the oilfield and was on a schedule of two weeks on and two weeks off. My partner and I bought our first house in June and in August we were married in front of all of our friends and family. To say the least it was a busy start to the year as were planning our wedding and moving so there was naturally some stress in our lives. During this time I started having some health issues that continued for over 8 months but after months of testing which included seeing an oncologist (which is a doctor that treats cancer), the doctors had diagnosed it as fibroids which is fairly common. As the symptoms progressed over time I tried to ignore them and chalked it up to stress, but it all came to a head just 2 days after my wedding. I was driving with my new husband and mother in law when I basically keeled over with pain. It was pretty common for me be rendered disabled for a few days when my symptoms hit me but no one had seen me going through it as it always happened when I was working away. As an hour went by they got increasingly more worried and decided to take me to the emergency room. Oddly, my symptoms had never before been as bad as they were that day. I will spare you the awful details but I will tell you that was the first time I knew something was seriously wrong. I stayed the night in hospital then was sent home to bedrest while they did testing. After 2 weeks I was back in the hospital and this is where my tragedy started. August 24, 2012 is still very vivid in my mind. My doctor walked into my room and she was already crying. After what felt like hours she took a breath and told me I had cancer, high grade stage 3, possibly stage 4 Uterine Sarcoma. All I could do in that moment was grab onto my husband and cry. There wasn't a lot of time to process everything as I had to go for surgery the next day to remove my uterus and started chemotherapy shortly after that, this was all at the age of 24. As scared as I was I knew there was a plan for me, otherwise why would they not have found it through the months of testing? Instead I was diagnosed after I had my wedding and only days after my life insurance was approved on my new mortgage. I also just so happened to be close to the doctors instead of stuck hours away in camp. These are some of the things that kept me strong during the 6 months of chemotherapy, the endless doctor appointments and many hospital stays. We got by financially in large part to family and friends and the fundraising they did. I tried to be strong as the people around me suffered in silence, we turned our focus on surviving and never looked at the other possibility.
After persevering through the months of treatment the doctors told me I was in remission. They believed the cancer had moved into my lungs but really couldn’t say because the spots were so small. They told me to go live my life like normal and we would keep an eye on it. So I tried to do just that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as I imagined. I should have been ecstatic at the thought I was done treatment, but because I knew the statistics of my survival (which wasn’t good), I couldn’t fully move on knowing it will probably come back.
But life continued on and in 2013 my husband and I were approached by a pregnant lady who had heard my story and knew I was unable to have kids and she asked us to adopt her baby. It all made sense now, everything in my life happened to lead to that moment. The pain and suffering we went through as a couple was for something so much greater. Our daughter was born January 2014 and we had her in our arms 2 hours after she came into this world. When I looked into her big brown eyes I knew I had to start moving forward with my life instead of waiting. So when she was 8 months old I went back to school for a business certificate and once graduated started back to work. This was my period of relief.
In 2015 again tragedy hit, we watched as the spots in my lungs began to grow. The doctors wanted to surgically remove one of the larger ones to test it and the results came back as expected. Same high grade now positively stage 4 cancer. Treatment wasn’t an option at that point and again they told me to continue on and we will watch. I once again became stagnant in my life and continued waiting. As time moved on we watched the spots slowly grow and we watched more pop up until March 1, 2017. That was the day I was told I had 6 months to live.
I quit my job and tried to spend every minute with the people I love. I created a page on Facebook called ‘6 Months to Dream’ to share my story and inspire others to live life to its fullest. I was interviewed by local and national media as I tried to stay positive and focus on what was important. I hadn’t realized that until I was given 6 months, I wasn’t really living I was simply existing. I was happy and grateful for everyday but I was holding myself back from things I had always wanted to do, and continually making excuses of why I couldn’t do them. The truth is I was scared… of everything. I was scared to try and fail, scared to be selfish and be a bad mother, scared to spend money, scared of doing things alone, the list goes on and on. Have you ever felt like that before? You can see your dream but you can’t commit because… what if?
Finally I was free from the chains I put on myself. The fears were still there but I didn’t let them control me. I became brave and looked for ways to conquer my fears. I did what I wanted without feeling judged or selfish. I took out my bucket list and went on the trips I had dreamed of and did things like Skydiving, alone, no longer waiting for someone to join me. I bought the guitar I didn’t think I would play... and actually I have probably only spent an hour on it but I will never regret checking off my bucket list, the only thing I will ever regret is not trying. I became someone who I was proud of and it seeped into all aspects of my life, I was happier and no longer took for granted the quiet moments with my family, especially with my daughter.
The past year didn’t suddenly become easier or less scary, it didn’t come painless with no obstacles and it certainly didn’t come without its share of breakdowns, but I made up my mind to live and to me living is one of three things;
One: Follow your dreams. Make your bucket list, conquer your fears and not hold yourself back. We only have one earthly life so get out there and live it.
Two: Appreciate every day. Check your attitude and make the most of every situation even in the mundane
Three: Make relationships a priority. Whether it’s with a friend, a spouse or God, we all need a support system. Today is the perfect opportunity to make a new friend to grow that support.
There will always be the good with the bad and vice versa, it’s up to us to decide what we are going to focus on. I could talk for hours about all the insecurities I have and the difficulties I have been through but I have never believed in focusing on our trials only on the lessons they teach us. The past few years have taught me many things, most significantly your attitude is everything! It can define a situation, a memory and even who you are as a person. It can change the way you see the world and more importantly your attitude can influence the way others view the world.
There will always be difficult chapters in your life but they won’t last, take them as an opportunity to grow and find the lessons they teach us. I know it’s sometimes hard to look past our own problems as we are the main characters of our own stories but it’s important to remember that minor (secondary) characters are the ones supporting and giving depth to make a novel a best seller, and they too have their own battles to go through. We need to support and remind each other that life is short and every day is a blessing.
The past year I was able to cram in a lifetime of memories, it’s been an incredible year and I believe that my attitude and the happiness that has come from following my dreams has allowed me to be standing in front of you today. It has been 13 months since I was told I had 6 months to live. Last year they told me surgery wasn’t an option and recently, I underwent two surgeries including major lung surgery where they removed a total of 10 cancerous tumors. Unfortunately, my cancer journey isn’t over and my ending is unknown but my story is a testament that life is short so why aren’t we doing everything we can to make sure we make the most of it. My challenge to you is to stop living in the ‘what if’s’, make your bucket list, add to it often and work on completing it. Don’t wait until tomorrow, start today.
You can follow Colleen's story on her Facebook page: