April 9, 2012. I went into my annual mammogram with no thoughts that anything would be wrong. Following the procedure, as I was waiting for the results — and naturally I was expecting the, “see you next year” pronouncement. When the tech and two doctors walked into the room I knew it wasn’t good news.
It was 3:30 pm, I was alone and heard the words, “you have breast cancer.” I could hardly see to make my way to my car. I called my husband who was more than an hour away at work. He called my sister who lived five minutes away and she came and got me until he arrived. The results were confirmed three days later after a needle biopsy and thankfully at that appointment, my husband was with me.
One of the worst parts of the diagnosis? It came less than one month before my 50th birthday. We had a trip planned to Boston for a Red Sox/Blue Jays baseball game and a weekend away to celebrate. Birthdays with “zeroes” have always caused me anxiety. It seemed an even crueler twist of fate to be facing a zero birthday in less than a month and being diagnosed with breast cancer. It was such a horrible irony that I had been dreading turning 50 and now all I wanted to do was to turn 50, 60 and 70 and even more zero birthdays.
The trip was canceled. Our lives became a whirlwind of oncologists and surgeons and fear beyond compare. I had never known anyone who’d had breast cancer. I feel like the only thing I knew about breast cancer was when I read about someone dying from it following a valiant battle. I wanted to fight a valiant battle but I wanted to survive. I knew my life was in the hands of medical professionals but I wasn’t able to function. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t stop crying. I didn’t have the coping skills to face this. I did know that if I heard one more person say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” I would truly have lost my mind. That was one of the most hurtful platitudes anyone can utter.
Breast cancer gave me the gift of gratitude and presence
It was during a visit with a second oncologist (the first made me cry and was doom and gloom and seemed indifferent) she gave me what I felt was profound advice. “Live your life in fifteen-minute increments. If you look at a week, a month a year down the road your fears will eat you alive.” She held one of my hands. My husband held the other. She looked at me and said, “You will beat this. I will make it my mission to ensure you do. But please only look ahead to the next fifteen minutes.”
Our lives — my husband, son and daughter and my siblings and parents — revolved around my appointments and treatments and surgeries. My entire family waited in the waiting room during my sixteen-hour surgery and reconstruction. They visited me in the ICU and came every day when I was discharged to a regular hospital room.
At home, during the months of my recovery, they stayed by my side. It was excruciatingly long and so many months filled with additional surgeries and treatments.
“Just look ahead fifteen minutes…”
My oncologist’s advice helped me through. It stayed with me. She also told me about keeping a gratitude journal. She said that with all I was going through it would be almost impossible to see any good in my day but she also said if I let myself open my mind and heart there would be at least one thing to be grateful for each day. Each day I was grateful to be alive. Grateful to have access to such incredible medical care. Grateful for my family and for the never-ending companionship of my poodle, Henrietta. On the hardest and bleakest days, my gratitude journal might only hold an entry that read, “Today I am grateful… the coffee creamer wasn’t curdled.”
My gratitude journal practice continues. Every night before I fall asleep I pull out my journal, write down three things for which I am grateful. Each morning before my feet hit the floor, I review my previous day’s gratitudes and it starts my day on a positive note.
Cancer also taught me to live in the moment… because you just don’t know what the moments ahead will give you. Even as I felt my body had betrayed me and that I no longer felt invincible, I also realized that because of that I needed to be constantly present. I am present for the good and the bad. When I am with my family and my grandbabies, I set the phone aside. There are moments when I do grab it though just so I can take photos of myself with the babies or the family. Other than that, I don’t multitask my time with them. I also let myself be in photos — prior to cancer, you can rarely find me in a family photo. I was “too fat” or “my hair was bad” or my “face was blotchy.” Know what? Life isn’t perfect. I’ve come to accept my less-than-perfect body. I’ve stopped hating cancer for all that it took from me. I will never “thank” cancer for coming into my life but I will be ever thankful and grateful for the lessons of:
- Be present. If you’re with your family or a loved one, enjoy that. In the past I could be involved in something I truly enjoyed, but my thoughts would run to, “I wonder what we’re doing next.” I wasn’t in the moment. Now I am. My family knows they get my focused attention. Even when I am scooping litter boxes, I am present. Why? I love my cats and the love and companionship they offer and scooping is a part of the relationship.
- Tell people you love them. I have always uttered those words. My children have too because I always said, “what if we never see each other again?” I realized once I was diagnosed that my parents rarely said they loved us. They told the grandkids that they loved them, but not us. I “forced” my dad to say it and then he said it all the time.
- Keep a gratitude journal. You just never know when your life will take a turn and you may think, “my entire life has been horrible…” chances are, it hasn’t. BUT if you don’t have something to look back on to tell yourself, “things really weren’t that horrible” it makes moving forward easier.
- Count your blessings. I still cry on April 9 when I mark my diagnosis. I cry on June 6, the day of my surgery. I still feel anxious on October 4 because of the third year after my diagnosis I was considered NED – no evidence of disease — and I was released from oncologist care other than annual visits. Those visits end this year on November 17 and I will be fully released from care. It will be a day to celebrate, but a day of anxiety. I will count my blessings on that day that I will have been ten years cancer-free. Those words will definitely be in my gratitude journal.
- Enjoy your birthdays. There are times I wonder, “how can I possibly be turning 60 this year?” It seems so old. But then my thoughts turn to, “I am turning 60 this year!!!” Every day is a gift and cancer taught me that.
I urge you to start a practice of gratitude. Find a journal that speaks to you. Put it by your bed and write down three things that happened that day for which you were grateful. Read that entry before you get up — it will start your day with a positive attitude.
My current favorite journal is a faux-leather-covered one with an owl on the cover. I also use that journal for my daily tarot card pull and my crystallary oracle card pull. My journals are my constant companions.