Justina Aveyard

My experience with cancer redirected me towards helping people in new ways and making a true difference in people’s lives.

My cancer journey started with what I thought was a canker sore on my tongue. My dentist gave me a mouthwash, but it didn’t help, so I was referred to a doctor who did a biopsy. When the results came back positive for squamous cell carcinoma, I was shocked. The doctor said I would need surgery, and we scheduled it to take place a few weeks later.

I was in Dubai visiting my dad when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded and everything shut down. I rushed home, unsure if I could get back to New York and have my surgery on time. Cases spiked, hospitals overflowed, PPE ran low, and my operation was delayed. Finally, we couldn’t wait any longer, and the doctor decided to do it in an outpatient clinic. My mom lives in Canada, so she couldn’t be with me. I also couldn’t spend the night recovering as planned. Luckily, my boyfriend was there to help me, and in the end I was grateful to be home rather than in a hospital.

I think that being unable to do  something makes you want to do it more. When I was stuck in bed after my surgery, I was desperate to get moving. The day after my operation, I did a ballet class with a tube still in my neck! That might sound crazy, but I was motivated. As a dancer and a personal trainer, pushing myself comes naturally. It helped me recover faster and regain normal speech.

Once I found a healthy balance, the other activities in my life actually helped me get through my treatments.

When I followed up with my doctor, I found out I needed radiation. I was disappointed at first, but I quickly regained my determination. Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t take the subway to and from my treatments, so I biked instead. I continued personal training in a virtual setting. I also took courses online, working towards an additional degree. I was really proud that I kept up with everything: work, classes, and fitness. Little did I know it was taking a toll on me, and eventually it hit me all at once.

I was on a lot of painkillers and I was exhausted. I had to stop biking to my radiation treatments. I had to ease up. But I made a schedule for myself with more breaks. Once I found a healthy balance, the other activities in my life actually helped me get through my treatments. They gave me something else to focus on and forced me to stay active. The movement and distraction were good for my body and mind.

Undoubtedly there were tough times. I lost my sense of taste. Eating and drinking became very painful. In one difficult week, I lost seven pounds. But my medical team pushed me and I avoided a feeding tube. They even convinced me to try salad, which I thought was impossible. It wasn’t! After my treatments were over, I still had no taste. I remember when that changed; I had a bite of peanut butter flavored frozen yogurt. It’s a flavor I always disliked, and I ate it accidentally. But my instinctive reaction to spit it out was a personal victory—it meant I had my taste buds back!

Above all, my experience inspired me to help people in a more direct and hands-on way.

Now I can eat and speak very well. I still have limitations, but mostly I don’t think about cancer. It’s crazy to think my diagnosis was less than a year ago. Every few months I get scans to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. They are terrifying. The unknowns and the waiting are the hardest parts for me. But I like seeing the team. They help reassure me and make me feel confident. They are really kind and uplifting.

After my experience with cancer, my outlook changed. Now if something doesn’t make me happy, I don’t do it. I’m not afraid to say no. Conversely, I’m less afraid to take risks, to speak up, and to share my experiences. I stand up for myself—I won’t let others take advantage of me, and I know my worth.

Above all, my experience inspired me to help people in a more direct and hands-on way. I love to dance and perform, and I always will, but now I’m passionate about finding a career that helps people, preferably in the healthcare industry. I want to volunteer more. Ultimately, my experience with cancer redirected me—not completely away from my previous path, because I still love dance and fitness—but towards helping people in new ways and making a true difference in people’s lives. I want to help those who need it.