Choose Happy

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I painted a mug at a local pottery place, one of my favorite places to go with my daughter when we are spending some girl time together.  Sometimes, I sat and talked to her while she painted but often, I painted too.  I could clearly remember painting this mug.  It took me a while to choose my colors but finally settled on yellow, green, orange and blue. I painted the mug, the handle, then the rim, and finally added some polka dots. Although deciding on a color scheme took a little bit of time, I already knew the words I was going to paint on the mug … “Choose Happy”.

At the time when I painted that mug, I had been cancer free for about two years. I was finished with treatment and back to living my life. If you looked at me, you wouldn’t have been able to see everything I had gone through.  My hair had grown back and the scars on my body were covered. On the outside, everything seemed back to normal.  I didn’t look different anymore, my calendar wasn’t filled with doctor appointments, and I had returned to my regular routine.  Friends and family said things like, “Now you can put it all behind you” and “It can all just be a distant memory”.  They meant well, but they didn’t understand.

I couldn’t just go back to my old life and pretend cancer didn’t happen.  Everything was different. My body was different. My priorities were different.  I was different.  When you had gone through something so scary, so debilitating, so overwhelming … it changed you. Things that were important to me before my diagnosis weren’t anymore.  Just before my diagnosis, I wanted to grow my business, go back to school…I had big goals, related to my career.  Once I heard those words, “you have cancer” and I allowed myself time to process what was happening to me, my list of goals was wiped clean.  I didn’t have goals anymore; I had promises, promises I made to myself.  I was going to fight so I could be there for my kids. I was going to love my kids so hard that they would feel that love even after my time on this earth was over.  I was going to show my friends and family how much I loved them. I was going to serve God and serve others. I was going to let the little things go, enjoy every moment and …

I was going to “Choose Happy”.

So,that is exactly what I did. My circle got smaller, my life got simpler, and my time was used more wisely.  I spent those ‘cancer free’ years devoted to my friends and family. I spent my time helping others.  I made up my mind that I was going to find the joy, even when things got hard; that I was going to smile, even through the pain. I could allow my situation to swallow me whole .. or I could simply choose to be happy. I believed it was a choice, but one we had to make for ourselves.  It didn’t make my problems disappear, but it made my problems easier to handle.  There are days when all is right in our world, when happiness is loaded upon us like a double scooped ice cream cone.  There are other days when our hands seem empty and it is difficult to find joy. Those are the days when we have to cling to our loved ones, put our faith in God, and make the most of a bad situation. Those are the days that we have to make a choice to trust that all will be okay and … to be happy.

Faith does not make things easy, it makes them possible. (Luke 1:37)

I picked up that mug from the pottery place when it was ready, brought it home, and put it in the cabinet.  It was warmer weather at the time and I didn’t drink hot tea as much during the summer months.  Even though I didn’t use it, I saw that mug every morning when I opened the cabinet door to get a glass. I purposely placed it on the shelf so that I could read those words “Choose Happy” every day.

Sometimes, we all needed a reminder.

About four months after I painted that mug, I had pain in my elbow and a cough that just wouldn’t go away.  Although my doctor felt it was probably nothing; considering my history, he decided it was best to check it out.  I spent my wedding anniversary that year with my husband at the hospital having a bone scan.  I showed up at the hospital early to get an injection and had to return a few hours later to have the scan.  My husband and I had breakfast and did some shopping before I had to return to the hospital.  We had a great time. After the scan, we continued to celebrate our special day. I had scans several times over that last couple of years ‘just to make sure’ and everything always came back okay. I expected nothing different this time.

I was on my way to take my son to school. As we sat at a red light, my phone rang.  It was my oncologist.  I answered the phone and as soon as I heard his voice, I knew something was wrong.  The usual lighthearted tone in his voice when he called to give me the ‘all clear’ wasn’t there. His voice was serious.  He told me that the scan picked up something and he was scheduling a bone biopsy.  My son was in the car so I got off the phone quickly.  My mind was spinning as my son talked about his upcoming day. I dropped him off, pretending it was just an ordinary day and then I drove home in stunned silence. My first thought was to call my husband but I didn’t want to … not yet.  I didn’t want to have to repeat out loud what my doctor said.  I wanted to keep it to myself for a while…because until I told anyone, I could pretend that phone call hadn’t happened.

After another test and much anxiety, my husband and I went to my doctor’s office and received confirmation that the cancer had spread to my bones and to my lungs and that I was re-diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.  I would start radiation right away and begin oral chemotherapy and injections soon after.  It was all happening so fast. My prognosis was 2 to 3 years if treatment was successful.  What devastating news!  What a crushing blow!  Why me?  Why now?  Why couldn’t cancer just leave me alone?

So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

It was a difficult day.  I asked a dear friend to take the kids for a few hours.  My husband and I were trying to process what we just learned, to prepare for my upcoming treatment, and to wrap our heads around how we were going to fight this fight again. I remembered sitting on the porch that night, in the cool autumn air.  My husband was angry. My husband was hurt.  It wasn’t fair.  He didn’t understand.  I had been through so much already.  I was upset too but I had some time to mentally prepare for that moment. Honestly, I had been preparing for that moment since I was considered ‘cancer free’.  I knew the risk but it still wasn’t easy.

But I choose happy.

I knew that God got me through the first round with cancer.  He was with me every step of the way.  He brought me through the effects of chemotherapy, the pain of surgery, the overwhelming emotions … and He would do it again.  I also knew that through my struggle, God changed my heart.  I wasn’t the same person. I was stronger. My faith had always been there but my faith had grown tenfold because God showed me what He could do. I am a walking testimony to God’s grace, mercy, and power. When the physical pain was so much that I didn’t think I could make it until morning, He gave me the strength to endure.  When the emotional toll was bubbling over, He gave me peace.   God walked with me through the first fire and there was no reason to doubt He would be with me through the next one.  Even though He chose this difficult path for me, I trusted in the plans He had for me.

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) 

If we believe that, do we need to know anything more?

As I lived with metastatic breast cancer over the last year, I know that God was doing great things. My scans showed that my treatment was working, that my cancer was ‘controlled’. At times, the side effects had been difficult but I had been spared the worst that these medications can do.  Every cancer patient was different. Every cancer patient’s response to treatment was different. I hit a few bumps in the road but I was still going strong.  My doctor was pleased with my clinical results as well as my ability to maintain my routine with my family.  Not all of his patients had the same response to treatment or maintained the same quality of life.  God’s mercies were not lost on me.

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. (1 Chronicles 16:34)

So, each night, I have a cup of hot tea. There is something about holding that warm mug that comforts me. Some people love coffee.  I love tea.  My favorites right now are chocolate caramel sea salt or honey vanilla chamomile.  Drinking tea has become a nightly ritual. I carry the load of my cancer diagnosis daily but I don’t think about it all the time. I have good days and bad days, regardless of cancer, just like everyone else. There are days when I hit every red light, dealt with rude people at the grocery store, and struggled to get everything done. There are days when I felt that I just didn’t measure up, that I was going about this Mom thing all wrong, and that my world was simply imploding. Life is tough sometimes. At the end of every day, but especially those rough days, I like to wind down by sipping tea. I like to think about my day and thank God for all my blessings. No matter what may come, I know that God will give me the strength to get through it.

I take a sip of tea, look down at my cup, read those words that I painted on that mug a few years ago … and then, with a deep breath and a quiet prayer, I remember that promise I made to myself, that promise that I will always “Choose Happy”.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

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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