It was a hot day in July, much like any other summer day in Tucson. Until it wasn’t.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when two little words made this day different from every other. “Spiculated margins,” my doctor said, in a near whisper, as we looked at the images on the screen. Words I hadn’t heard. Words I didn’t know. Two little words that would become as much a part of my vocabulary as hello and goodbye.
My routine mammogram, something I’d done religiously since my late 20’s, had revealed a tiny mass. I looked down at the screen, staring till I lost focus, then up to my doctor’s face. Her concern, the empathy in her expression, revealed what her words did not.
Those “spiculated margins" were something to investigate further. A biopsy would determine what, if any action was needed, so I should try not to worry. But I did worry, I had worried for as long as I could remember. She looked worried, even though she didn’t say, she couldn’t say.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 would have been my mom’s 82nd birthday. She died a week before her 50th. Long before those two little words took on a life of their own for me – before the biopsy, the diagnosis, the medical team building, the plan, the treatment - there was a seventeen-year-old girl.
There was fear, a broken heart, and so many memories. I was that girl, not quite an adult, not quite ready to be tossed out into the world alone. But that’s precisely what happened. Life happened. And with a few words, softly spoken in a sterile office on a hot summer day, 32 years later, I was there again. My thoughts wandered off, mulling over what my future would look like, remembering what my past looked like.
Mom’s story ended July 14, 1977 after a brief, hard fought battle with the formidable opponent. She kept most of the details from me, the diagnosis, the extent of the disease living within her and the dire prognosis.
She would be fine, she’d say. She would beat it, she’d say. I shouldn’t worry, she’d say. So, I didn’t, at least not overtly. I did go about my days, well aware that things were not as they used to be, but they were our days, and as much as mom could be there, she was.
She was there with love, supporting me, watching over me, being mom. I was unaware of just how much life knowledge and strength she tried to infuse into our daily lives, preparing me to carry on without her. Unaware of just how soon that day would arrive.
I wonder still, what she went through, how she felt, why she made the decisions she did. I speculate about it, because that’s all I have.
It took becoming a mother myself to understand what her motivations to suffer alone, to keep me out of the day-to-day physical and emotional struggles, may have been. It was less about bravery, I think, than the act of protecting your children from life’s unexpected hardships.
She did, as a single mother, her level best to ensure that my teenage years might move along as she believed they should – filled with all the milestones and happy times that define a young girl’s passage into adulthood.
Somewhere between mom saying, “honey I have breast cancer,” and my doctor saying, “try not to worry,” I grew up. I went to college, went to work, got married, became a mom.
Life had had its way with me, and I survived. I became who I was, navigating through each stage of my adult life, because she wasn’t there.
There was a bit of resentment along the way, if I’m to be totally honest. I didn’t spend a lot of time at the pity party, but there were moments. Mostly when those milestones she coveted so, popped up - graduation, marriage, the births of my two sons – the happy times – the memory-making times. I missed her.
I questioned it all and somewhere along the way questions turned into fear. Fear that my story would end as hers had. Fear that cancer would find its way to me, and that I would die, just as she had.
I convinced myself that her journey was my destiny. Then, very early in my twenties, anxiety and panic began to replace my ache for her loss. I found a sad sort of comfort in imagining that anytime I got sick, found a mole, had a cough, a headache, the diagnosis would come. Then I could just accept my fate and get on with it.
What “it” was in those early days, I have no idea! Was it life or death I feared more? Likely a bit of both. I just wanted the worrying to stop.
And then it did…
So, there I stood on Wednesday, July 22, 2009, only slightly younger than she was when her battle was lost, pondering my own future. And then something remarkable happened.
Suddenly, there was no torment, no panic, no angst – I felt curiously empowered. A new source of strength took over. There was a positive, active energy that surged through my body and spirit.
During the days that followed, telling my family, putting together my medical team, I remember experiencing a complete release. What I’d dreaded for so long, the single worst thing I could imagine that might happen to me, did. And I was OKAY. I would be OKAY!
I now considered my life in terms of “before” and “after”. The diagnosis, and my choices in how to process and proceed with it all, were a blessing. I gained a perspective I don’t believe that I could have otherwise. I was truly blessed.
I began to look at the life I’d been given, the family I’d created, the accomplishments I’d achieved in a new light. “Before” I got cancer, I spent my days fretting the ‘what ifs’. “After” I got cancer, my thoughts shifted to the ‘what nows’.
It’s interesting to reflect on how I’d spent so much of my life just getting through. I overcame tremendous challenges, experienced successes and carried on, the best I could. I did this, while keeping my anxious, obsessive inner dialogues private.
Raising my family, engaging, on the surface. But just beneath were the incessant, nervous ramblings of my inner-voice, the night sweats, the absurd notion that I could somehow control whatever my destiny was to be.
My diagnosis taught me that what I could control was my response. Only my response, and that was perhaps my most significant takeaway. A perception for which I am eternally grateful.
I was blessed…
I am blessed…
In just a few weeks I will celebrate my “tenth” birthday. 3,650 days since those two little words, “spiculated margins” entered my life and changed it forever.
“My life!”: two big new words that have become my mantra.
Saying them reaffirms my faith in the journey. My direction has changed considerably over this past decade. I’ve become an empty-nester, found a new career by returning to an old passion, rediscovering my voice along the way.
I remember a friend who was also an oncologist, telling me that my life would never be the same. That I was now and would forever be, a cancer ‘survivor’. I liked that. The emphasis on surviving resonated with me.
It was proactive, encouraging, affirmative. I was not - am not a cancer victim. For me, it was a moment of reckoning. The realization that life is and will always be a gift, something to appreciate for however long it is given.
My life was now defined by those two big words - “before” and “after”. Before the diagnosis it was a good life, a well-intentioned life, a meaningful life. But its course was off. Its energy was misspent. Its hope was conditional. It was good, but I knew it could be better. I just didn’t know how to get there.
I know. I am here. I am grateful.
I spent years agonizing, fearing that cancer would take my life, in fact, it gave it back to me. I embraced it with open arms – this new life I’d been offered. I had choices, how to live each day, regardless of what came at me.
Life can suck! It can be everything except what you’d always hoped it would be. But it’s yours. Your one magnificent life. And this was mine. I was done being afraid. Done with spending my time fretting the unknown. It’s all unknown, after all.
I was lucky, my cancer was early-stage with very low recurrence rate. There was also a notable difference in the challenges I faced from those of my mom’s. I was not alone. I made a conscious choice to include my family on every step of the road ahead of me.
The impact of their presence was and is profound. I know that the unconditional love and support of my husband and sons gave me the strength to cope and overcome the hand I’d been dealt.
That one little decision was life-altering for me. I would not do this alone. This was my sign. Surviving my worst nightmare liberated me.
And you know, I really like the new me! I’m not afraid, of anything – the new directions, the opportunities, the challenges. My satisfaction and joy come from seeing just how seamlessly I can navigate life’s inevitable changing tide.
I’ve welcomed back, with open arms, the young girl who disappeared in her teens. She wasn’t ready for the tumultuous road ahead.
But me? I am ready. Ready to live.
To be free…
I am free…