On December 27th, 2016, I had just sat down in the breakroom at work with a bag full of Guthrie’s chicken finger goodness when my phone rang from an unknown number. I answered and a very official voice on the other end of the phone announced himself to be the doctor who had done an ultrasound guided biopsy on me a few days prior after I insisted to my OB/GYN that the lump I was feeling was definitely not a clogged duct. I didn’t much care for him when he was essentially drilling a hole in the side of my boob but the next few words would put him at the bottom of my favorites list for sure.
“I’m sorry to say that it’s a breast cancer.”
Tunnel vision. I stood, absolutely helpless, and walked towards the door. Chicken fingers abandoned. I remember looking at my work wife Sarah and her hands were covering her face in horror. That’s when it hit me. Cancer. I now required to be looked at with that kind of disbelief. Numb and fumbling I remember asking foolishly, “What do I do?”
He told me they would try and see me as soon as possible for further testing, and by that afternoon, I sat with my husband, my mom, and my dad in a waiting room, starting a journey that would lead to a complete diagnosis and ultimately change the rest of my life. No matter your age, when your parents looked scared, you know it ain’t good.
I remember in those first few hours and days saying repeatedly, “I just don’t want to die.”
And that was before I would eventually know the whole truth. It had spread. I was stage four. I very well could die.
Now, if you would have asked me before I was diagnosed how I would handle something like that, I would have imagined myself inconsolable, devastated, immovable with grief. But the reality was simple — I had a life to live. So I went home that day and made dinner for my babies. I crouched to catch my daughter as she screamed “Mommy!” and ran into my waiting arms like we always do. I held my son that night (he was only five months at the time) and breastfed him to sleep like I had every night of his short little life. Tears dotted his bald little head as I pictured the worst case scenario that lay before us.
Doing something so normal when you’ve gotten that kind of news is surreal. Shouldn’t I be doing something? Something important? My life is so different now. Shouldn’t I be doing something different? But, no. That’s not how this works. You still have to get diapers and fill out the paperwork for school and go to work and drive your car and eat and do laundry.
And can I just say, thank God for that. Thank God for life in even its most basic form because that has been what’s gotten me through such an abnormal time. Normalcy.
Don’t get me wrong, I go to The Kirklin Clinic at UAB every three weeks and they stick a needle in my chest and pump a whole bunch of wonderful drugs into my body. Not normal. But other than the obvious, my everyday life has remained pretty much the same because I decided from the first time my oncologist said, “Well, you know it’s not good news,” that I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to not live either.
There were some good things, physically speaking, about my diagnosis. It had only spread to my bones so no tissue involvement. (Yay!) I’m also triple-positive which means that my tumor was being fed by estrogen, progesterone, and herceptin. Sounds not-so-good, but it means that the drugs they are giving me are targeted specifically to those growth factors. If you can target them, you can take them away. Good news for ole’ cancer girl, eh? I have also responded remarkably well to treatment. After only one chemotherapy treatment, I could no longer feel the knot I had discovered a few months earlier. Since then, scans show that the tumor has continued to fade, my bones are healing, and lymph nodes aren’t as swollen. High fives all around.
After I was first diagnosed, my dad said something to me that I hold on to when I want to feel sorry for myself or I want to go all “worst case scenario”. He said, “We can’t get ten years down the road and realize we missed all the good because we were crippled with fear of ‘what-if.’” Hhhhmmm … if I had a dollar for every time Dad was right, I’d be able to pay him back for all those sorority snaps from college.
So that’s how I’ve lived every day this year. Like normal. Because, God willing (and God has been so incredibly good to me through this), this will just be a season and I don’t want to have missed all the good worrying about the potential for bad.
And there is so much good. With two small kids, a hot farmer husband, a family that is there at the slightest hint of need, an amazing job, hilariously endearing friends, what more could a girl ask for? My motto through this whole ordeal has been, “There’s joy in every single day.” Because there is. Every single day there’s something that is good and pure and highlights the fact that I’m still here. I have a beautiful life to live. There’s a funny phrase from my wild-haired daughter that makes me laugh (or question my parenting skills). Or my son giggles like the Pillsbury Doughboy when I accidentally brush his tummy or any other of his numerous tickle spots. Or seeing the relief on my husband’s face when I walk out of a six-hour-long chemo treatment because he doesn’t say it often, but he can’t stand to see me struggle. I’m blessed. Cancer and all.
Don’t get me wrong. There are days I dance around with my son and wonder if I will be there for the mother-son dance at his wedding. There are days I will see a picture of someone’s daughter in a cheerleader outfit and I quietly pray I will make it. That I will be there for everything. There’s so much I want to be there for. So much they need me to be there for. But those moments are few and far between because they have to be. My life is too busy with the now to be anxious about the then.
So we do dance recitals. I try paddleboarding while on vacation. We fight over how much I spend on the kids’ clothes. We plan birthday parties and look forward to holidays. We clap like a bunch of crazies when my son learns to high five. I have bad days at work. I tease my nephew when he mentions a girl that likes him in his class. I cry like a baby when I find out my best friend is pregnant after years of infertility issues. I go to chemo. We fret over private or public school. I lead a small group. My husband packs insanely intricate lunches for the kids. We spend time with our families. I drink wine with my girlfriends. My brother and I make a pact for the fiftieth time to lose weight together. My husband spends too much time picking the perfect GIF to text me to express his current mood. I call and wish my niece good luck when she’s auditioning for The Nutcracker. I read another chick lit novel instead of the fifty devotionals I’ve got and should be reading. We play outside. I write thank-you notes. We eat a lot of fruit and veggies, but we also eat a lot of mac and cheese. We are living a normal life.
Normal is a gift. Normal is a blessing. Normal is what you never knew you wanted or needed until something comes and threatens to take it all away. The less time that there is for cancer, the better. It won’t dictate my life or hijack my family because it doesn’t deserve that kind of attention. The drugs may be dissolving the cancer in my body, but my commitment to living my normal life is taking away its power over my heart and soul. Light drives out darkness. So focus on the positives. They may look small and meaningless until you get in the shadows and they’re all you have to light your way.
I cannot tell you how many people told me some version of the following as I went through that first round of tests and diagnostics: The people that have the best attitudes going in have the best outcomes coming out. Well, then, I’m going to be the most hopped-up, hi-ho cheerio cancer patient you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I even take flowers to each round of chemo to share with someone else in hopes to brighten their day and hopefully impact their attitude. I also make my oncologist high-five me when there’s good news. (She’s a real good sport.) But seriously, it’s a lesson I needed to learn and one that hopefully resounds with others I come in contact with, no matter their situation. Enjoy your normal. No matter what.