This picture came up in my Facebook memories today. It took my breath away for a moment, just like it has for nine years now. It was the last picture taken of me before my midwife found the lump and my life changed forever.
The first time I saw that photo, I realized I didn’t know that woman anymore. She was naive. Laying there in the sun without any inkling that a cancer was growing inside her. Look at her—unafraid and without anxiety. Less than 48 hours later, she would be gone, replaced by someone who was afraid of each new day because she had no idea what it would bring.
My diagnosis was divine intervention I believe. I was a busy mom of three little girls and hadn’t had time to go to the doctor since my youngest had been born. I hadn’t needed to—I was 34 and the healthiest I’d ever been. Between potty training, working, and caring for my dad in his last months of life, I barely had time to call and cancel the previous year’s appointment.
Finally, though, we lost Dad, and I was reminded how important it was to make time for my health once in a while. So, this year I kept the appointment. It was the day after this photo. Tan and happy from a weekend on the lake, I had a relaxed, friendly conversation with my midwife as she walked through the usual routine. I noticed she lingered in one spot. Then moved her hand. Then returned to that spot.
She told me she felt something and left the room for a minute.
When she stepped out, I sat up and laughed a little at the mere suggestion that there could be something happening in my body I was unaware of. After all, my dad had just died of cancer. I had already paid my dues when it came to illness and tragedy, and I would definitely know if I was sick.
When my midwife returned to the room, she told me she was sending me immediately for an ultrasound. Her words were calm, but her eyes were worried. I don’t know how, but at that moment my heart knew. I was in and out of doctor’s offices the rest of that week. We spent the following weekend in a daze. Not really wanting to speak out loud the thoughts circling in our heads.
“You’ll be fine,” my husband would say as he wrestled with the possibility that there could be a problem with his family he would be powerless to fix. On the one hand, I was absolutely terrified. I thought of nothing other than what would happen to my girls if I weren’t there to raise them. Every ache, cramp, or twitch felt like it must be cancer growing inside me. Then, I would feel stupid. I thought surely I was doing all of this worrying for nothing, and I would look like an idiot when the doctor called with the report.
It wasn’t nothing.
Two weeks after this photo, my phone rang. I was at work and lucky enough to be standing in a soundproof booth. When she called, she asked if I was alone. I told her it didn’t matter because I was tired of waiting. It was stage two they believed and relatively fast growing. They would call later to tell me what my next steps would be.
I stayed in that booth for another two hours. I’m sure I cried, but I don’t remember. I finished work that day because I desperately wanted to avoid delivering the news. How could I look my husband in the eyes and know I was about to change his life forever? At that moment, it didn’t matter how many women had stood in these shoes before me. I felt desperately alone.
Almost instinctively, I drove to the office of a friend who had just finished her surgeries and chemo. “What do you want to know?” she asked as she hugged me.
“What’s going to happen to me?” I responded. It was all I could think to ask as I desperately clung to the hope that she would have some magical wisdom that would make this feeling of dread in my gut go away.
It will be a year of hell, she told me, but you’re going to make it. I took enough strength from her to finish the drive home and deliver the news.
It was a blur from there.
I remember a nurse navigator telling me not to let it take over my life. I remember that because it quickly became clear that I had no choice. They would tell me where to be and when, and if I wanted to live, I would be there. Even if it meant missing my daughter’s first volleyball game, my 10th anniversary, or another day of work.
Today I look at pictures of that year, many of them taken by other people because I couldn’t be there, and I feel like I was asleep for the entire year. I have few memories of anything other than trying to survive. The pain of that loss will always stay with me, but other things will stay with me too. Lessons I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life.
After all the smoke cleared, after that year of hell, I was one of the lucky ones. My journey can hardly compare to what I’ve seen some women go through since then. All along the way, I learned things. I learned how to use my pain to help others in their own time of fear and uncertainty. I learned how much a heartfelt note or a gift card for pizza can mean when you feel alone. I learned that it’s OK to tell people when you’re not OK.
Most of all I learned that lake days don’t last forever, so you have to enjoy them while you can.
I am here today and so much better for having experienced the loss of the woman in that photo. Cancer taught me how to live, and I believe that was God’s plan for me all along.