Last Monday, June 22 marked twenty years since I heard those terrifying words, “You have breast cancer.” That day I’d gone for a routine mammogram during my lunch hour and was shocked when the radiologist pointed to an area of the film.
“You need to see a surgeon right away,” she said, her dark brown eyes registering concern.
I remember feeling like I’d faint and the radiologist handing me a cup of water. That was the moment that I realized your life can change in a second.
After sitting for a while to settle down, I escaped that radiology office to the privacy of my car. There, I cried and prayed, calling out to God, “What am I going to do?” Later as the possibilities flooded my brain, I moved into a bargaining mode; “I can’t have cancer. I need to be around to raise my sons and to grow old with my husband.”
At age forty-five, I had a lot of life in front of me. My sons were fourteen and fifteen and I wanted to be present to see them graduate from high school and college, make their way in careers, perhaps get married, and maybe have children.
For the next eight months, I went through an aggressive treatment regimen of surgery, chemotherapy, and thirty-two radiation treatments– the recommended course at that time for my triple-negative breast cancer. As I describe in my memoir, He Heard My Voice, I was simultaneously dealing with a toxic job and the two things together made for the hardest time in my life.
Now, at age sixty-five, I see that many of the things that I discovered through those eight months, ways of navigating the unknown, I’ve used over the past year of my separation. When my husband told me he no longer wanted to be married, the shock of that conversation made me feel sick much like when I listened to the the radiologist. I saw my future suddenly changing from what I’d envisioned through our forty years of marriage; we wouldn’t be growing old together. While I’d lived through the cancer experience and watched my boys graduate and go out into the world, my older son marry and give me a grandson, I would not be living into my old age with my husband.
Lately, I’ve been reading Mary Pipher’s book, Women Rowing North. I feel I need to prepare for the next phases of life as I deal with aging and all the changes that may be ahead. Pipher emphasizes the importance of choosing how to handle change– a given in all our lives. She sites examples of women who are resilient and become their bigger selves, growing in the midst of difficulties.
I’ve been fortunate to live for two decades beyond my cancer diagnosis. I know many women who have dealt with repeated occurrences and some who didn’t live. While I’ve been fortunate about cancer, you could say I’ve been unfortunate about my marriage. Who can see what life will hold?
This past year has challenged me to the core. But I will say that what I learned from having cancer and have applied in my life over the past twenty years, has helped me to endure the pain and to not let myself become a victim. Having my life threatened all those years ago, made me think deeply about what’s important, what has meaning and value.
Today before I sat down to write this post, I was anxiously waiting for the news of the arrival of my second grandson. It’s been a hard pregnancy for my daughter-in-law with having to be so careful with the pandemic. The sheltering at home has reminded me of when I was going through chemo and stayed away from crowds when my cell counts were low. We’ve all been more careful to keep down risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other illnesses.
After a long period of waiting, of heightened anxiety, our little fellow finally came. What a burst of joy when we received that news.
Twenty years after that day I heard I had cancer, after sitting in my car and crying out to God, I am celebrating being cancer free for those two decades and now a grandmother for a second time. My husband and I will be co-grandparents, but we will not do that as a married couple. That is the change that I’m facing at this point in my life journey.
For all of us, change is inevitable. Whether it’s receiving a cancer diagnosis or some other that is life-threatening, or the dissolving of a marriage, or some other big event in our life, we’re called on to develop new ways of coping that over time will lead to resilience.
While I didn’t choose to have cancer, I was forced to learn new ways of coping that have helped me to be resilient. May you find the skills you need for whatever is your challenge, ones that will serve you well throughout your life.
And may you have the unimaginable joy of a precious new life that reminds you of hope and possibility.
How about You?
What unexpected illnesses or situations in your life have forced you to develop new coping skills?
In what ways have you become more resilient?