It was exactly 2 months after we found out for the fifth time that we lost our baby, and 3 months ago today when I found a lump in my left breast. Within 8 days I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, a devastating blow to me and my family, and most of all to my immediate future plans. Those damn plans. I grieved them, I sobbed, I got angry, over and over. And then I learned quickly to throw planning out the window. Planning our futures in such great detail is just grasping for control, and control is an illusion. Of course, sometimes our plans work out the way we expect them, sometimes the inspired actions we take bring us exactly what we want. And sometimes we experience mountains of pain and loss only to be followed by a cancer diagnosis. No matter what, though, we often get exactly what we need, whether that matches the picture in our heads or it’s the complete opposite. This is my faithful belief now.
I was initially told by a doctor, who’d seen me during my biopsy and who I now know had no business saying this to me, “Your life can be back to normal in 3 to 4 months!” During the first appointment post-diagnosis, with that expectation set, the most urgent question out of my mouth, “When can we try to have a baby?” The answer was too painful to bear. I’d need five years of treatment, minimum. At 35, this wasn’t information I was able to deal with calmly. We’d tried so hard for 2 years, and now I’d been given a 5 year sentence. How could I not spend the next five years grieving, crying, wishing for the life I tried to create all along?
It wasn’t an easy thing to accept, but I dug deep into myself and found a way to surrender my plans. Truly, I had no choice. But when I consciously surrendered, I stopped grieving as hard, stopped resisting what was. I researched, I meditated, I often asked out loud for guidance when I was sitting alone. I listened to my loved ones. Tense at times, as there were moments they couldn’t believe I could focus on anything other than myself, surviving. But I couldn’t do nothing. That felt like defeat, the ultimate loss. If I’d had living children before I was diagnosed, I’d do everything to survive for them. And in my heart, still heavy with grief missing our baby, I wanted to do everything to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel. The light where my children will be and life will be better than I ever could have planned.
After 3 surgeries to remove the tumor, we began a fertility preservation cycle with the help of a wonderful clinic who gave us a discounted rate, and two organizations, Livestrong and Heart Beat Program, that provide free fertility medication to cancer patients. Thanks for the coupons, cancer! Two weeks later we had 7 gold standard embryos in the freezer. Peace comes with knowing they are there to use or not, to one day implant in my womb or that of a gestational carrier. The wonderful thing is that we don’t have to worry about planning away the next few years. Whatever we decide will become clear at the right time, and we’ll act on it. And the fear of my dream of motherhood being destroyed no longer exists within me. I could have thrown my hands up completely, not gone through with the fertility preservation knowing the treatment could render me infertile, and said “whatever is meant to be…” but I couldn’t find peace with that decision. And what I am learning on this journey is that the goal is always peace in whatever decision I make.
Finding peace and acceptance with treatment was a bumpier road. Being told from the day of diagnosis that my life would be back to normal in 4 months was really harmful. I had expectations that I’d have a relatively easy treatment path. Everything was working in my favor, the characteristics of my diagnosis, the stage, the fact that it hadn’t spread. But when I found out the genetic makeup of my tumor was on the more aggressive side, I panicked. I saw 4 very different oncologists to get their separate opinions. I saw energy healers and wellness coaches. I spoke to friends, friends of friends and even their mothers at times. Literally anyone within my reach who had dealt with cancer I was begging to talk to.
I wasn’t looking for my own answers in others, but for some reason I needed this outreach. I needed to hear how others’ came to their conclusions and how they coped. At the end of the day, you can have the best doctors in the world, but you are your number one advocate. No 2 cancer patients are ever the same. It’s why I try to keep my distance from internet forums. Their cancer has nothing to do with mine. Maybe that sounds bitchy and anti-tribe, it’s not meant that way. But I am way too sensitive and it’s way too easy to spiral into fear and doom when every week you read, “We lost another sister today…”
Facing treatment, once again I dug deep. I meditated on it. I had heartfelt talks with my loved ones and with myself. I listened to every doctor and asked dozens of questions, even philosophical ones. I brought lists, I took notes. I became the most active participant in deciding my treatment plan, possibly considered a difficult patient but I’d wear that label proudly any day. I would never have felt at peace being a passive patient, taking my doctor’s word without questioning why and asking for things to be explained to me in great detail. It’s not that I didn’t trust my doctors’ opinions. I worried about being over-treated, when from the beginning I had this expectation that this would all be over in a few months. Just a bump in the road.
Eventually I found the answer within myself, and ultimately found peace with my personal treatment plan, which includes conventional medicine, radical lifestyle changes and deep spiritual healing (another post for another day). I’d resisted the idea of certain conventional treatment. There is too much information at our fingertips, without knowing which or how much of it is reliable. And I’m thankful that I was active in gathering information to make an informed decision, even if it is not the one I initially expected. As scary as chemotherapy and radiation are, I came to the conclusion for myself that you don’t fuck around with cancer. That dark tunnel I talked about, this is part of it. There never was “normal” life in 4 months. Life will never be as it was. And it’s okay. It’s wonderful, actually.
You can find joy in almost any experience. You can find a reason to feel love and gratitude for how it changes you. Maybe none of this is happening to me, but rather for me. If we can view life in that way, we can truly see all the little gifts around us.
Even though I didn’t expect this journey to take such a turn, I’m still going to share my experiences along the way as much as it feels right to do so. Perhaps I will provide a unique perspective and stories for someone else, stringing together the words I so desperately needed to read and never found when I was anxiously searching the internet right after I was diagnosed.