Cancer … and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Note:

This was a post I wrote after my first diagnosis.  I never shared it before but I needed to go back to it.  I needed to remind myself of that fight that I found deep inside.  A cancer diagnosis is never easy but as a mother of young children, it is even more devastating. You are not only fighting for your life but you are fighting for your children to grow up with their mother, so your children won’t have to suffer that unspeakable loss, so your children won’t be robbed of their innocence and security.  When you hear those words, “you have cancer”, your children are the first thing on your mind. This post is very personal and tells the story of the first day I found out that I had breast cancer. It also tells the story of my decision to fight for my life and my decision to live my life as though I was going to lose it.  Now, three years later, I still have that same fight inside of me. I still have that desire to live my life with purpose.  I still have that same love for my children. I will never stop fighting.

choc chip cookie 2

Friday, August 31, 2012

I checked off the ingredients in my head. I had them all, even the chocolate chips. We didn’t have to stop at the store on the way home. I had everything I needed and enough time to bake cookies for the kids before they got home from school.  I wanted, no, I “needed” to make chocolate chip cookies. I set the butter out on the counter so it could soften and then I looked at the clock.  I had time to go lie down for a little while before I started baking.

I walked upstairs to the bedroom. I didn’t say a word but Mike followed me.  Silently, we lay down on the bed and I buried my head in Mike’s shoulder. Then, I cried.  Again. I had been crying all morning.  My head was still processing everything.  I just kept thinking that this couldn’t be real. This wasn’t happening…but it was. I had just found out I had cancer.

I scheduled the mammogram after I found the lump. Mike took the morning off to go with me.  I was scared but still hopeful that it was going to be nothing. I wasn’t even 40 yet.  I was young and healthy. I felt good. I couldn’t be sick.  I was a wife, a mother, friend and a small business owner.  I had things to do. I barely had time for this mammogram appointment.

We sat in the waiting room and looked at magazines until they called my name. The nurse was very friendly. She chatted as she took me back to the locker room to change into a gown.  When I was ready, she took me to the room for the mammogram. She asked for my prescription.  It was actually given to me the previous December, the last time I went to my gynecologist.  She told me to go and get a baseline mammogram but not because there was any reason to worry. The prescription hung from a clip on my refrigerator for the last 8 months. If I didn’t find the lump, that prescription would have still been hanging on my refrigerator. Again, I was busy and I didn’t make my own health a priority.  She asked me a number of questions as though it was just a routine mammogram.  When she realized that I had found a lump, she explained that I would need a different prescription since it was a diagnostic mammogram.  She said she would take care of it and not to worry about it but she seemed worried.  She asked to take a look at me.  I studied her face as she examined the lump. Her bright eyes and cheery attitude suddenly dimmed.  She became more professional as she asked me to step up to the machine.  Something in my heart knew that something was most definitely wrong. That is when I started to cry for the first time that day.

The nurse instructed me how to position myself for the exam. I had never had a mammogram before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The nurse stepped back behind the counter and took the first picture.  I could see an image on the computer screen.  When the nurse saw me looking at it, she quickly tilted the screen so I couldn’t see it.  From that point on, the friendly nurse wouldn’t make eye contact with me.  She positioned me on the machine so she could finish taking the pictures she needed.  I kept asking her questions like “Can you see anything?” and “Is everything okay?” but she ignored me. I knew her silence meant bad news. I continued to cry.  She took me back to a waiting area and told me the doctor was going to take a look at the images.  I sat there, feeling numb and sick to my stomach. I was freezing in the air-conditioned room as I pulled that gown tight around me. Ellen DeGeneres was on the television.  A few moments later, the nurse returned and said that they wanted me to stay for a sonogram so that they could get additional pictures.  She brought me a box of tissues and I cried some more.  She told me she was going to get my husband.

I sat there and pretended to watch Ellen DeGeneres as another woman walked into the waiting area. I continued to watch the television as though nothing was wrong, like if I stared at the television, the woman may not notice my tears.  I was relieved when she left the room.  I saw the door open again and Mike appeared.  I remember his face as he came through the door.  I saw him before he saw me.  He was relaxed and looked as though the nurse just called him back to wait in another waiting room, unaware that there was a problem.  His face changed when he saw me crying.  He knew something was wrong.  The nurse explained that I was waiting for an additional test.  Mike held my hand and questioned me about what was going on but I didn’t answer him.  I couldn’t talk.  He just continued to hold my hand while I continued to cry.

A few minutes later, a technician came to get me and took me back to the sonogram room. The technician was very nice but she didn’t say much either.  I got on the table and she started the procedure. As she moved the wand around, I tried to look at the computer screen again.  I could see it but I didn’t know what the pictures meant.  I remember hearing the ‘clicking’ noise and she told me she was ‘taking measurements’.  I will never forget that sound. Then, another technician came into the room carrying a file folder with small images on it.  They spoke quietly in a code that I didn’t really understand but I assumed they were looking for something in particular.  They moved the wand.  More clicking.  They made a comment about how they weren’t seeing anything.  That gave me a small glimmer of hope.  Maybe it was nothing after all.  Maybe I was okay.  The second technician left.  I asked the first technician about what was going on.  She didn’t answer me.

A minute later, the doctor came into the room. She seemed angry and annoyed. She didn’t address me or look at me. She grabbed the wand and started moving it around as she stared intently at the screen.  She muttered to herself, “I don’t see anything here”.  That little glimmer of hope I felt earlier briefly grew a little bigger.  Then, she finally made eye contact as she simply stated, without emotion, “You have a suspicious mass.  Most likely cancer.  Will have to be removed.  You will have to call breast surgeon.” I stared at her, trying to process what she just said but within a second of blurting out a statement that changed my life forever, she put down the wand and left the room.  The two technicians looked at each other, horrified by the way the information was shared with me.  They awkwardly told me again that I would have to call a breast surgeon to make an appointment and gave me pamphlets and other information.  They asked me if I had anyone with me and then went to get my husband.

Mike came into the room and I didn’t want to look at him. He had no idea what had just happened.  The technicians gave me a towel to wipe off the gel and said I was finished.  We walked to the waiting room and I changed back into my clothes.  My head was spinning.  I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I was just told I had the cancer.  I went out to meet Mike in the waiting room.  The nurse came out, gave me more information and told me that they had wonderful doctors that were going to take care of me.  I took the information but couldn’t speak.  She gave me a hug and I held onto her tightly for a moment.  Then, we left.

Mike held my hand as we walked out to the car. It was a sunny August day.  I wished it was raining.  It seemed unfair that such a bad thing could happen on such a beautiful day. Somehow I choked out the words, “I have cancer”.  He squeezed my hand and said, “They didn’t say that”.  I realized he hadn’t been in the room when the doctor told me.  I looked at him and said, “Yes, they did. I have to call and make an appointment with a breast surgeon.  I have cancer.”   We sat in silence in the car.  We had already decided we were going to grab lunch after the appointment so Mike drove to the restaurant.  I held back tears in the booth as we pretended to eat. We didn’t say much during lunch but I remembered Mike saying that I was going to beat this thing and that everything was going to be okay. There wasn’t a bit of doubt in his voice.

As I lay crying on Mike’s shoulder, all sorts of things ran through my head. When someone says that you have cancer, everything changes.  Was I going to die?  Who would take care of my children?  How much time did I have?  I pictured myself lying in bed, wasting away to nothing, wearing a scarf on my head.  I remembered thinking of the movie “Stepmom” with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon.  In the end, Susan Sarandon’s character was dying of cancer and she gave her children special gifts so they would remember her.  I thought about what kind of gifts I could give to my children.  I thought about how I would write letters to them for their birthdays, their graduations, their weddings, all those big moments that I was going to miss.  I thought about my Mom.  She lost my father, the love of her life.  How was she going to handle losing her daughter too?  I thought of my husband.  How was he going to raise the kids on his own?

The thought of my children growing up without a mother was the most terrifying. I felt cheated. I felt robbed. Mike and I tried for years to have children before we finally got pregnant with Kalea. Then, we were blessed to get pregnant again so quickly with Kade.  They were only 5 and 6 years old!  Was that all I was going to get?  Was this all the time I was going to get to spend with the children that I prayed for and waited so long to have?  Why would God finally bless me with children and then call me home?  I made a promise to myself that I was going to treasure every moment, give them all the love I could give while I was still here. I couldn’t go down the dark road.  I needed to stay positive and make the best of whatever time I had left. I wanted to hug them and kiss them and never let them go.  I wanted to create lasting memories. I wanted them to remember me after I was gone. I wanted to be the best Mom I could be.  I wanted to bake them chocolate chip cookies.

They would be off the bus soon. I dried my tears and wiped my face.  I went downstairs and started baking. I poured every ounce of my love for them into that special batch of cookies.  With every scoop of flour, with every beaten egg; I was reliving all the special moments I had enjoyed with my children. I remembered the days they were born, the holiday celebrations, vacations, every day moments.  My mind was overflowing with flashes of happy memories.  As the cookies baked, the house filled with that scent of chocolate, childhood and a mother’s love.  As I lifted each warm, gooey, delicious cookie off the pan; I made promises to myself about how things were going to be different.  I was going to fight this thing with all I had.  I was never going to give up.  I was going to show my kids that I was strong and that I would do anything to be there for them.  I would not take one single moment for granted. I was going to enjoy life, no matter how much I had left. I was going to create experiences and make memories for my children.  I was going to make sure that my children were going to know, without any doubt, how very much I loved them.  I was going to wrap them with so much love that they would feel it long after my days here on earth.  I was going to focus on the things that matter. I was going to look for the good in every situation, even when it was difficult to find.  I was going to smile, even when it was hard.

As I washed the cookie sheets and the cookies cooled, I promised myself that I was going to start the rest of my life on this very day. This day was not an easy one but this day was a day I made the decision to survive. I made a decision to live my life as though each day could very well be my last. I made a decision to turn lemons into lemonade….and a cancer diagnosis into a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Author: Jennifer Lilley Collins

I'm a Mom, wife, daughter, and friend navigating life with metastatic breast cancer while finding joy in the everyday and spreading hope, love, and inspiration along the way.

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