My mom was a beautiful soul. She had vibrant green eyes and a warm, caring nature. She was also tough as nails. She raised us with a good moral code, with a particular focus on conservation. “Waste not” was important to her — we never ran the dishwasher until every nick and cranny was filled in an organized fashion, and though recycling came after we were gone from the house, we had the most organized trash. Nothing went into it until it was compressed by hand to the smallest size.
She became my best friend as I became a young adult. While we had our conflicts, I always looked forward to our daily chats on the phone. When I was 10 and my brother was 8, she divorced my father and returned to college to get her bachelor’s and eventually her master’s degree in social work. At the age of 40, she went on a trip that really influenced her final full decade of life. During that trip, she recalled her childhood dream of walking the entire Appalachian Trail, from start to finish, and spent nine years meticulously researching and planning for the journey. At 43, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the same age her older sister had been diagnosed. She went through treatment and healed her body. Six months before turning 50, she began the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Ten days before her birthday, she finished the trail, the final assent up Mount Katahdin, in the company of her siblings, my husband and myself. It was a beautiful day filled with joy and celebration.
Six weeks after she finished the trail, my mom called me to talk. At the time I was living in Boston and she was in Maine. She shared the most unexpected news. Her cancer returned, and it was everywhere — her bones, liver and lungs. This amazing person, who had just walked 1,200 miles with her “home” on her back, had actually developed full-blown metastasis on the trail. She said, “Well, everyone was talking about how they were in pain, so I just assumed that mine was no different.” It was the first time in her life that she did not have any specific goals in mind, beyond wanting to beat cancer again. I recall this conversation with her as we lay next to one another, disbelieving that this could be the end of her “story.” It was early on in the treatment phase, and while we hoped for the best, a part of me knew somehow this was the beginning of the end.
My brother, my husband and I came home shortly after her diagnosis to help care for her, along with our family and her numerous friends. She was gone less than a year later, dying five days after she turned 51 and just two weeks after the first anniversary of finishing the Appalachian Trail. Over 300 people came to her wake — her family, friends, families from “the old neighborhood” and the extended community. It took several years to really process the loss of my mom, to adjust to the fact that I could no longer pick up the phone and talk to her. I was 26 years old when she died.
I continued on with my life, training to be an art therapist, giving birth and raising my two sons, and so forth. Yet in the back of my mind, I always pondered whether or not I would get cancer. I didn’t feel tormented with anxiety about it for the most part, but naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder. I watched my older female cousins reach and surpass the age of 43 without getting diagnosed, which gave me hope that this would be the same for me.
Then, in the summer after I turned 40, I had a dream that I had breast cancer. The next morning, I did a self-exam and found a lump. At the time, I had a high deductible insurance plan I knew would change in the fall, so I scheduled an appointment for the future and quit coffee to see whether or not the lump was possibly a caffeine cyst. Unfortunately, it grew in the weeks that followed, becoming visible to the eye when I looked in the mirror. The day my youngest son started kindergarten, I went to the doctor, who ordered a mammogram for the following day. The mammogram turned into a ultrasound, which turned into a biopsy. While I was shell-shocked, I was deeply appreciative that we were not “wasting time” figuring it out. My mom would have approved.
September 9, 2014, my breast surgeon left me a voicemail saying I could call her on her cell, no matter what time it was, so she could give me the results of the biopsy. I had triple negative breast cancer. The sample had been saturated with cancer.
It was scary. I was in a state of disbelief. I was angry. I had hoped to be able to really focus on my career now that my kids were both in elementary school. Yet there were other plans in store for me. The cancer had spread and they found a potential issue in my hip, but ultimately decided it had not metastasized. And while I was experiencing all of these mixed emotions, I was deeply surprised because I was also feeling a deep sense of peace. The question of whether or not I would get cancer, the one I had asked since the age of 19 (my mom’s first diagnosis), had finally been answered. Feeling peaceful was completely unexpected, but I was grateful for it, because it helped me maintain some sense of being grounded — which fueled my resiliency to take on this challenge.
It can be difficult to accept the range of our thoughts and feelings when we are confronted with a life-altering experience. We often feel like we “should” have certain reactions to life’s complications, and thus unanticipated responses can throw us for a loop. Yet, in order to heal, I believe it is important to create space inside for them all to coexist. For a tapestry is always made more beautiful by the diversity of its interwoven colors and patterns.
You may be struggling with accepting the many emotions a diagnosis can bring, not to mention the challenge of experiencing your loved ones’ reactions to the news. It’s fairly common that cancer patients feel like they need to be strong out of fear of burdening their family with their feelings. Yet if we remain quiet, we miss important opportunities to feel emotionally connected, which is central for keeping yourself afloat.
Imagine we were sitting together, discussing how to manage the chaos of the diagnosing phase. My advice to you would be to become an observer of your thoughts and feelings, to welcome them rather than critique them. There is no right or wrong way to handle the words, “You have cancer.” The more accepting we can be of ourselves and our feelings, the more resilient we can be in addressing them.
As Jon Kabat Zinn wisely reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
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