The Queen of My Self

by Terry Werth

Until now, I didn’t realize that I’ve stood at the crossroads of empowering courage and crippling fear at least once before in my life. Thirty-two years ago, five months pregnant with our son, I tearfully told my gynecologist that my father-in-law had terminal cancer and was expected to die before our baby was born. “We’re all terminal,” he replied in his curt, clinical tone. I was momentarily paralyzed by hopelessness. But jolted by his candor and veracity, I was changed by that moment. It summoned up in me a sense of courage enabling me to cherish, even celebrate, the finals days of my father-in-law’s life while embracing the joy and wonderment of our anticipated birth.

There have been several such junctures in my life when I think of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” moments of critical decision making. Haven’t we all stood in that place where the road goes off in two very different directions? One road appears bright and smooth, the other, shaded and more obscured. While the choice may seem deceptively obvious at first, one only has to remember that neither road guarantees a route free of detours or roadblocks. Both roads may have bumps, even landmines! And so, the intersection of those roads is a place to ponder. Many of my “crossroad decisions” were related to actions: to marry this person or not, to take this job or not, to buy this house or not, to tell the truth or not…two roads, diverged. It wasn’t until I recently found myself at the crossroads of courage and fear that I truly understood the power of making a choice of attitude.

On May 8, 2009, after a routine annual mammogram, I learned that, without any symptoms or forewarning, I had stage 3 breast cancer that had gotten out of the breast and into my lymphatic system. At that moment, I remember feeling that I had no choice. Nature, fate, life had made the choice for me. I was going to die…sooner rather than later. I felt that I had no choice because I felt that I had no control.

As days and weeks passed, and thanks in part to a talented, positive team of medical professionals, I began to realize that there were choices to be made. There were things I could control. I embraced each of them with gusto. During that time, I also realized that I was standing at Frost’s familiar cross roads. If you have ever faced a life-threatening situation, you know exactly what I mean. Assuming the fetal position in my warm bed, curling up under the blankets and giving up may seem like the easiest path to choose, requiring nothing but surrender¾ the path of crippling fear and hopelessness. If we’re being honest, most of us venture down that path for at least a few steps then realize that other road¾ over there¾ must have something better to offer!

The other road, the path of courage and hope, requires more of us. Despair, after all, is an act of submission. Courage is an act of will. When I chose “courage,” I believed it was the best path to take. I will never know, of course. That’s the thing Frost tells us so eloquently. To be one traveler and know you cannot travel both roads is the dilemma. It is the choice that makes all the difference.

I was doing a lot of therapeutic writing after I was diagnosed, and I can almost recall the moment I made a conscious decision to take the road of courage. I pulled my shoulders back and planted my feet firmly on the floor in front of my desk. I wrote about defying the disease and the odds. I wrote about living and the things I have yet to accomplish in my life. I reflected on death and meeting it on my own terms. I read voraciously¾survivor accounts, research, lifestyle changes, nutrition guidelines, spiritual direction, even quantum physics! I set out to assemble resources: a palliative care specialist, a shaman, breast cancer survivors, clinical trials, organizations, programs and activities that would guide me on a courageous path to living.

This path I have chosen, the road of courage, has not been without its challenges, hurts or disappointments. Lifestyle changes are agonizingly difficult to make. Misunderstanding and rejection by someone I believe loved me is painful and impossible to reconcile. Clear answers to complex questions continue to elude me. I dig deep inside myself, choosing courage, again and again.

There seems to be a threshold of protection, of consideration the world is willing to give me. As days pass and people see that I am a survivor, life gradually returns to normal. Except, life for me, will never be normal again. This cancer for which there is no evidence of disease at the moment, is (statistically) likely to return in one to three years. Listening for the knock at the door, hearing the background music, waiting for the other shoe to fall…those clouds are forever with me. And yet, I choose courage. I know the facts and statistics. I know the limitations of treatment options for recurrence and the active research underway to give women like me more options. I know that each day more women are being diagnosed, finding themselves standing at the same crossroads.

Reaching out to them is another way I find courage. The sharing of our stories, our fears, our interminable hopes, our unexpected joys, magically lightens my load… and theirs. Joining hearts and hands, transforms a lonely path into one where sisterhood brings strength and comfort, sometimes all the way to the end of a life. Not easy, but good, courageous work.

“I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the road of empowering courage instead of the road of crippling fear. I choose hope over despair, joy over sadness,
And that has made all the difference.”


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Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to









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