2008 began with our family traditions of Chinese take-out by candle light, a family movie, a “glow-stick extravaganza” performed by our 2 young boys, and a general feeling of goodwill and optimism for the upcoming year. A few days later that optimism was replaced in my heart with a sensation of foreboding. I couldn’t place my finger on why I had a feeling of doom, I just felt unsettled. This emotion was paired with paranoia when I began having some pain in my left breast. I mentioned it casually to my husband and he gave me a concerned and intentional look. My mother had passed away in May of 2006 after a 19 year battle with breast cancer. She had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer at the age of 44. This was in both of our minds, but I didn’t have a lump and so I gave several excuses on why I could be having this pain – hormones, too much caffeine, etc… We both hoped that this would be the case for me, but to be honest – when I confessed about the breast pain to Todd, we both knew it was cancer. We just knew.
I went cold turkey off caffeinated sodas and when the pain hadn’t gone away after a week, I bit the bullet and called my OB GYN. Considering that I was 38 and had just had my annual appointment without occurrence two weeks prior, the office wasn’t terribly concerned. Breast pain rarely signaled breast cancer. Only about 5% of breast cancer cases reported some form of pain prior to diagnosis. Still, I needed to schedule my yearly mammogram anyway – so they recommended that I make that call today.
God must have been looking out for me because the mammography unit had a cancellation and was able to schedule me for an appointment the following day. My good fortune didn’t stop there… when I received a phone call from the Komen Center requesting that I have a follow-up visit, another cancellation allowed me to go have a sonogram that same day. I didn’t take my husband with me because I had this superstitious hope that if I handled this as a simple mammogram misread or “blip on the film” – maybe it would come true. But when the sonogram began my original foreboding was validated. I felt a calm acceptance as the doctor located and measured a tumor in my breast. I allowed a fascination with the technology to override any emotions. But when he began investigating another area under my armpit, I started to feel alarmed.
“What are you doing now?” I questioned.
“Well, these are your lymph nodes. It appears that you have something very suspicious occurring in this location as well.”
My heart sank to my stomach. In my brain, removing an early stage tumor seemed like something that would be emotionally challenging but not terribly life-threatening. Knowing that lymph nodes were involved changed the whole synopsis for me. My lips began to quiver and my legs started to shake. Quiet tears ran down my face leaving wet dots on the white paper covering the table. The question of my mortality whispered in my ear and cast a shadow over my heart.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said.
I called my husband to come to the office and get me. The nurses allowed me to stay in the examination room while I waited. They brought me my clothes and I joked with them through my tears that they probably didn’t want me to leave this room because I’d scare all the other ladies in the waiting room. Left alone, my legs continued to shake and I thought about this phenomenon in a removed, surreal way. I picked one up off the table to see if I could still control my limbs. Yep, they were still a part of me. Weird to think that something that wasn’t a part of me was now trying to steal space inside my body. Cancer.
I spent the next 24 hours in the company of self pity. I cried in my husband’s arms and called all my close friends to gather strength from them. People handle bad news in different ways – I’ve always been someone who automatically reaches out when given a burden too great to withstand. My friends are my friends for a reason – they are wonderful people who cried with me, encouraged me, and promised to be there. After two boxes of Kleenex, I decided enough is enough. I’d drenched myself in tears and remorse. It was time to push out self doubt and take a leap of faith. I’m a spiritual person who has been reconnected to God for many years now. A painful divorce and a blessed second marriage had already shown me that God can take an ugly, hurtful event and make something beautiful from it.
“Okay, God,” I declared. “I trust you. I know that there are valleys in life, but that I won’t be alone.”
From then on, I changed my perspective. The few times I did allow myself to think about the possibility of an early death, I reminded myself that I don’t control the world for a reason. My plan might not be the best for everyone. I faced the hardest scenario – what if I died and my two boys were then raised by my ex-husband’s girlfriend whom I didn’t care for. It was an ugly, ugly moment. I had to battle my own bitterness at this idea to make way for peace.
“Okay, Kris,” I challenged myself. “What IF she raises your children? YOU may not like it, but that doesn’t mean that your boys won’t be treated kindly. It doesn’t guarantee that they can’t be happy and healthy without you. Though you may not want her to have the gift of your children, ultimately the boys’ happiness is what is most important.” That was a very hard pill to swallow. Even now as I write this, tears stream down my face. But it was really important that I looked my worst fear right in the eye and accepted it as just that – my worst fear, but not insurmountable. Once I did that I was able to have peace and courage in my heart rather than fear. I was able to use my gifts of creativity and humor as weapons against my disease.
Telling the boys was difficult, but I’ve been in difficult places with my boys before. I’ve learned to be honest and straightforward. To be available to questions and to answer them in the kindest, most truthful way I can. To give hugs, to share tears, and to allow all of us to be human. And, of course, to always point out the silver lining. I told them that NOTHING they said or did or even thought in a moment of anger caused me to have this disease. This might be an opportunity in disguise. This is going to show us that sometimes bad things happen but it doesn’t stop us, we can get through it.
To keep the optimism going and to include the boys in our journey, we started a “funniest card contest”. Our mailbox was being flooded with cards and the boys enjoyed the silly poems and jokes. We spread the word of our contest through e-mails and my blog. While I was having bi-lateral mastectomy surgery on February 20, my dad stayed home with the boys and supervised their creation of 4 trophies made out of sculpey clay. They couldn’t decide who should make the 1st place trophy so my dad suggested there be 2. They were so proud of their trophies and took judging the 6 inch stack of cards very seriously. This was such an uplifting event in our lives and we never would have experienced it if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. We were also reminded about how loved and supported we were through delivery of meals and offers for childcare. How truly blessed I am!
Recovering from surgery was tough, but it was a beginner’s lesson for accepting that there were going to be times when I couldn’t do something myself. My husband had to help me with so much at first – from putting on my socks to driving me places to caring for my wounds. Once when he finished washing my hair he joked, “That will be 65 bucks, ma’am.”
Though my energy was low, I needed to get out of the house so Todd took me on fieldtrips. We went to every Dollar Tree in the area throughout the course of a few weeks. I teased him that I wanted to expand our tour to include Big Lots. He was such a good sport and he took on every role that came his way – home nurse, hairstylist, cook, chauffer, and cheerleader.
Back in January, after our first consultations with surgeons and doctors, I had teased Todd. “Bet you NEVER thought you’d have to do this when you proposed 3 years ago!” He stopped dead in his tracks, took my hands, and looked me in the eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I would make the same I choice I did then.” Is there any wonder I love this man so much?
The next step in our journey was chemotherapy. 16 treatments within a 5 month period of time. You have no idea what chemotherapy is like until you’ve experienced it. Both my mother and my best friend died of breast cancer after long, courageous battles with it. Even witnessing what they went through didn’t prepare me, though now I have a new respect for both of them. Still, I was determined to face down this demon and win. We had a “Wig Out” party before chemotherapy started. Our friends came wearing either wigs or hats for the occasion and each gave me a single bead. One of my talented friends took this collection of beads and created the most beautiful necklace and bracelet so that I would have a physical reminder of all my support when I went to treatments. Again, another inspiring moment that I would have missed without my disease to create the opportunity.
After my first chemo treatment, I developed a case of Shingles on my head. I had no idea what they were but when I went to my second appointment, I was denied treatment until these healed. I was absolutely crushed. I didn’t want anything to stand in the way of me completing this leg of the journey as quickly as possible. I cried all the way home, but when Todd pulled into the driveway I was struck by the tulips blooming in our yard. Todd had re-done our landscaping the fall before and this required moving a bed of 500 tulips. The funny thing was that not all the tulips had made it into the desired location and now we had lone tulips blooming in different spots throughout the yard in addition to an organized flower bed. It made me realize that although we hadn’t planned those spontaneous blooms – they still brought me laughter and joy. I hadn’t planned to have my treatment delayed, but I needed to look for the laughter and joy this week.
My hair fell out 3 days later. It started as a light rain and ended in a torrential downpour. The Shingles had made it so that I couldn’t shave my head as I had hoped to do. The process of losing my hair reminded me of a dying Christmas tree – everywhere I looked there was evidence of loss just like when you find pine needles in your carpet in March. It seemed like I was cleaning up needles of hair for weeks. Luckily I had a very nice new wig ready when I needed it. My good friend had gone with me on this one-of-a-kind shopping event and we really had a great time trying on wigs we’d never actually wear. I got to see myself as a red-head, raven haired, and even with mermaid locks down to my hips. It was all very theatrical and fun.
And once again, near the end of chemotherapy I had an unexpected surprise. 6 weeks prior to my final treatment, I noticed hair growing on my head again. I ran to my husband and asked his opinion. “Maybe,” he replied uncommittedly. But it WAS growing! I asked the doctor about this and she smiled. “It has been heard to happen on occasion. You must be one of the lucky ones.”
“If you only knew!” I thought to myself. I have been blessed with a loving, incredible husband, two boys who have trouped through this ordeal, wonderful friends, and great medical care. I have prayer warriors across the Midwest. I have the support of my workplace who is patiently awaiting my return from medical leave. Though I didn’t need breast cancer to know how lucky I am, it certainly did validate it.
I’m about to enter the third phase of my medical journey – radiation. I don’t know what to expect but I DO know that we’ll get through it and will learn something else along the way. That’s the way life is – unexpected and wild and beautiful and sad and with lessons at every turn.