It is that time of year again. Back to school. Late summer. Blue skies and puffy white clouds. Beautiful days. Labor Day weekend.
It is also the anniversary of the day my life changed forever. It was the Friday before Labor Day. That year it was August 31st. I had a mammogram, then a sonogram, then the doctor told me I had cancer.
I spent over a year in treatment.
Chemotherapy. Double Mastectomy. Reconstruction. Radiation.
There was …
Fear. Sadness. Pain.
But also …
Faith. Love. Hope.
On October 10th, I finished my last of 28 radiation treatments. I officially reached EOT, or end of treatment. It was a wonderful day. I rang the bell at the radiation center to proclaim that my treatment was over.
I came. I saw. I conquered.
I had to take one pill every day but I could finally say goodbye to cancer.
I thought I was done. I thought I served my time.
Life went on.
For almost 2 years.
After I reported some mild but unusual symptoms, my doctor ordered a bone scan. It was September 23, 2015, my 15th wedding anniversary, and my husband and I spent the day at the hospital. A week later, I was back at the hospital getting a bone biopsy after that scan came back with suspicious findings. On October 10th, 2 years to the day after I rang that bell and said goodbye to cancer, I sat in a chair next to my husband and heard my oncologist tell me that the biopsy confirmed what he suspected.
It was cancer.
Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
There was a lesion in my shoulder bone. There were spots on my lungs. There was no longer a cure. I was terminal. My treatment objective this time was to keep the cancer at bay and to maintain quality of life for the time I had left. Statistics said I had about 24 to 33 months.
I will hit 24 months this October.
If statistics are correct, I will be gone by this time next year.
So teach us to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom.
It is almost August 31st again. 5 years since my first diagnosis. 2 years since my second diagnosis. We are nearing Labor Day weekend and I find myself back in familiar territory. Some concerning pain in my femur, hip, and back that just won’t go away has set in motion another scan. This one is a bone scan. I had to be at the hospital at 745 in the morning to have an injection and then return at 1045 for the actual scan. An hour later, I was able to go home … and wait.
I am still waiting. The waiting is the worst.
So many things are going through my mind. I have had a long run with Ibrance, the drug that has blocked those cancer cells from growing inside of me and infiltrating another bone or organ. I have spent the last 22 months living a fairly normal life.
That could change when I get these results.
At best, I will have wasted a perfectly good morning. At worst, I will confirm my fears.
There really is no in between. I will go on living my life or I will be forced to gear up to fight for it harder than ever. I will go to bed bubbling over with so much gratitude and relief that I can’t calm down enough for sleep or I will go to bed, staring at the ceiling and praying for a clear path of treatment … and simply more time.
Time to raise my children. Time to be a wife to my husband, a daughter to my mother, and a friend to all those important people in my life. I want time to do the things I planned to do. Time to celebrate more birthdays, more holidays, more ordinary days.
My clock is ticking. My hourglass is no longer top-heavy. The end of the ball is near.
But I have so much more dancing to do.
I think about all the life I lived over the last five years…
My kids were 5 and 6 when I was diagnosed the first time. They were in kindergarten and first grade. So little. Now they are 10 and 11 and in fifth and sixth grade. I remember when I found out I was diagnosed the second time and the kids were 8 and 9. I remember crying to my husband that my kids would possibly be 11 and 12 when they lost their mother. My kids will celebrate their 11th and 12th birthdays in October and December.
If statistics are correct, this could be the last birthdays I am here to celebrate with them.
When I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I was told to expect 3 more birthdays, 3 more anniversaries, and 3 more holidays.
If statistics are correct, I am about to begin my last round of all of those wonderful events.
It makes my heart sink. It pulls the air out of my lungs. It crushes my spirit.
I collapse in a heap on my bed and the tears start falling and they won’t stop.
I think of the dresses and ties I won’t see. I think of the anniversaries I won’t celebrate. I think of the Christmas presents I won’t wrap. I think of the birthday cakes I won’t bake. The graduations I won’t attend. The college care packages I won’t send. The family dinners I won’t cook.The weddings I won’t attend. The grandchildren I won’t hold in my arms.
I wonder if my husband will go too long without eating, if he will see a doctor when his headaches get too bad, if he will get enough sleep. I wonder if my friends will go to lunch and sit comfortably in a booth for two. I wonder if my Mom will go to the doctor for her routine appointments, if she will get her pills on time, if she will still make her apricot cookies at Christmastime and crochet her beautiful blankets. I wonder if I will go peacefully, if I will be in pain, if my children will have to watch me suffer in the end.
My mind is scrolling through snapshots of family dinners, holidays, and events going on without me. I see my husband and my daughter sitting at my son’s graduation. I see my husband walking my daughter down the aisle and then sitting down in the first pew alone. I see the Thanksgiving dinner table but it isn’t filled with our traditional favorites. I see my daughter crying in her bedroom over a broken heart and I ache to put my arms around her but I can’t get to her. I see my son agonizing over decisions about school, work, and life, but I can’t talk him through them.
Just when I feel my heart shattering into a thousand and one tiny pieces; my tears stop, my mind clears, and my sobbing comes to a halt. Although my mind sometimes spirals and goes to that dark place; I don’t allow myself to stay there for long. It is a place that I can’t help but visit from time to time, but not a place that I can live.
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
During the dark times, when there is fear and uncertainty, pain and suffering; we aren’t sure what to do. We fear the unknown. We worry about things that haven’t happened yet. When we find ourselves lost at sea, in the middle of a storm, being beaten by the waves and unsure of which way to go; we hold on tight to our raft, we look up to the sun, and we fix our eyes on the shore. When we find ourselves lost in the middle of our struggles, we must hold on to our faith, fix our eyes on God and trust in His promises.
It is through the hardest of times that our faith becomes the strongest.
When I get overwhelmed by images of my husband spending the rest of his days alone; when the grief grips me from the inside out thinking of my children growing up without me ; when I find myself worrying about the day when the doctor tells me that there are no more options for treatment …
That is when I have to remind myself that this is all beyond my control, beyond my understanding. As much as I want to, I can’t fix this, manage this, or prepare for this. One microscopic cancer cell can grow into a resistant tumor and destroy my body one organ at a time. One bad scan can change my life forever. And there is nothing I can do about it.
I don’t have the power to stop those things from affecting my future;
but I do have the power to stop those things from affecting my present.
I have to take my power back.
I have to stop allowing my mind to think about days that are yet to be.
I have to focus on the day before me.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34)
That is how I dial it back. That is how I bring the day into focus. That is how I get through the bad days — the pain, the side effects, the scans, the waiting, the grief. I focus on what is in front of me right now. My blessings in front of me calm the waters. My faith in God brings me peace.
I look at my husband. His eyes are the same as the day I met him. His eyes are a little older, a little wiser; but his eyes still sparkle. They still see into my soul. His hands held my children, built our dreams, and guided our family. His lips didn’t say much; but said what needed to be said at a time when it was needed. His mind is sharp. His heart is pure. He is my gift from God.
I look at my daughter. My baby girl still resides in that young woman’s body even though I can’t find her as easily anymore. She feels deeper than most and her emotions bubble to the surface. She reflects on things and processes them slowly and intimately. She pours her heart onto paper with pen and brush. She is beautiful, inside and out, but she doesn’t believe it. It is my job as her mother to make her believe that.
I look at my son. His mind never stops. His thoughts are unique and clever. He wants to solve problems beyond his scope. He wants to right the wrongs and save the world. His heart is beyond big. His feelings are easily crushed. His hugs are beyond amazing. He is special, in a million and one ways, but he doesn’t know it. It is my job as his mother to make him see that.
I look at my Mom. Her wisdom is immeasurable. Her compassion is unmatched. She is the mother with whom I was blessed and the mother whom I aspire to be. She is love and patience and kindness wrapped up in human form. She is responsible for the person I have become. She is my Mom and she means so much to me.
I gaze at the sunrise. I feel the breeze on my face. I catch snowflakes on my tongue. I listen to the birds in the morning and the crickets at night. I watch for the first daffodil in the spring and the first turning leaf in the fall. I appreciate a “blue sky and puffy white cloud” kind of day as much as I appreciate a rainy one. I breathe in the smell of baking bread and love to bake chocolate chip cookies. I steal extra hugs from my children and don’t pass up a chance to tell them I love them. I take notice of the little things, because it is the little things that are most important.
When I focus on the blessings I have in my life, I stop focusing on what is wrong.
When I focus on what is good in my life today, I stop focusing on what might be bad tomorrow.
When I focus on what makes my heart happy, I stop focusing on what makes my heart break.
People ask how I manage…
People ask how I get through the days…
I don’t get through the days. I live through the days.
My tears have dried and my breathing has calmed. As I wait to find out what tomorrow will bring, I focus on the joy that is in front of me today.
My friends took my children to school so my husband could accompany me to my scan. My husband and I got to enjoy a quiet breakfast and some time together after my injection while we waited the three hours before I had to go back to the hospital for the scan. I cooked and we ate dinner together. It was a beautiful day outside and we all had a nice evening. Life is pretty good.
As I wait to hear those words that have the ability to change my life, I have to remember that no matter the outcome, my reaction is what will determine how big a change that will be.
If my doctor calls and tells me that my scans are clear; I will praise God for His faithfulness and for the success of my treatment plan. I will cry a few tears of joy and I will hug my kids. I will enjoy the rest of the day, knowing that God will continue to take care of me and my family.
If my doctor calls and tells me that my scans show progression; I will praise God for His faithfulness and for the availability of a new treatment plan. I will cry a few tears of sadness and I will hug my kids. I will enjoy the rest of the day, knowing that God will continue to take care of me and my family.
On this August 31st, the anniversary of the day my cancer story began, I can mourn the day that my life forever changed or I can celebrate the wonderful life I am still living today. I choose to celebrate 5 years of living with cancer and shattering expectations and statistics along the way. I choose to celebrate 5 more years of marriage, 5 more years of mothering my children, and 5 more years of LIFE!
As I wait for my phone to ring, I will not sit in fear. With the faith of a child, I know that God will take care of me. Whether my cancer has progressed or whether it has not, God will continue to bless me. How can I be upset when I am surrounded by people who love me? … when I am surrounded by people who are praying for me? … when I am surrounded by people who will pick me up when I fall?… when I am surrounded by the beauty of this incredible world and by the love of our amazing God?
I will be waiting for that phone to ring tomorrow…
but there will be no more tears in the meantime.
How can I be anything but joyful when I truly have nothing to fear?
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)