“When I was 29 years old, I was feeling great. I was in what I thought to be my prime! I was a competitive runner, I led a healthy lifestyle, and I was 4 years into my rewarding career as a speech-language pathologist. I was newly engaged to be married and my then-fiancé, Ryan, and I had just begun our wedding planning. The venue had been booked and the future was ours! Family planning and life planning were at the forefront of our conversations. We were planning the beautiful merger of our lives and families and all the places we would go. I felt as though the sky was only the base to my limits.
Little did I know, our lives would merge, but the beauty to be found would take on a different course, and the places we would go would be largely scheduled for us, appointment after appointment, and our tickets would be in the form of medical bracelet after medical bracelet. The miles we would cover would be by car and to and from our local medical center, and I would become a professional passenger.
It was a cold Missouri Sunday afternoon. I had just returned indoors from running hills in the brisk 18-degree late January weather when I sat on my couch to catch my breath and warm up. I crossed my arms in a gentle self-hug when I felt something alarming at the top of my left breast, something that was not there only 1 to 2 days prior, something that did not belong. It was hard but painless, slightly smaller than a golf ball and rather immovable, anchored to my chest wall.
Being familiar with my own body and its normalcies, I knew this needed further assessment, assessment from my primary care physician. I contacted her office the next day and was sitting in her exam room by the following. She palpated the mass and agreed it was suspect, in need of further diagnostics. Before I knew it, I was scheduled for a diagnostic ultrasound and mammogram. However, I must interrupt myself here to share a piece of my story I have not previously shared. Due to my own fear and denial, I called back and delayed these initial appointments by 2 weeks because I found their time of day to be inconvenient with my work schedule. Clearly, my priorities were askew. Ryan brought me back to reality and fortunately, my original appointment date was still available, and I was able to resecure it. Let that detail be a testimony to the power of emotions and their ability to completely cloud our ability to think critically and use our best judgment. I knew better. I just did not want to know better.
2 grueling weeks of waiting passed. The nights were sleepless, the hours felt multiplied. Ryan attended my diagnostics with me, waiting patiently across the hall in the waiting room the whole time. I will never forget the pleasant and fluent conversational I was having with my sonography technician as she completed my breast ultrasound. We were chatting about our lives, our families, our and our favorite travels… that is, until she fell silent. She did the best she could not to miss a beat in the flow of our exchange, but she did, and I could see her cheeks flush and I could sense her heart begin to race internally. It was then I knew. Our conversation then resumed, but it was not the same.
Then came the diagnostic mammogram. The technician was lovely, and she positioned me in all the right poses to get the perfect imaging. I then went and sat in the waiting room to await results. The breast radiologist entered and sat by my side in the tiny windowless room. She strongly encouraged me to allow her to get my fiancé so he could accompany me through the conversation that would follow. Stubbornly, I asked she just talk to me. She carefully shared with me her concerns about the appearance of my mass on imaging and what it could possibly mean, and we would not know for certain until receiving pathology results from an ultrasound-led breast biopsy. I was falling into a state of numbness as I was beginning to process what was really happening. I then scheduled my breast biopsy and departed the breast center. Through the glass wall, I hand-signaled Ryan, who sat patiently and nervously across the hall. I quickly pointed to the elevator and hung my head low, as to signal my plea for us to leave immediately.
The biopsy came and went. I was awake for the duration as the breast radiologist bored a hole into the anesthetized side of my breast and retrieved his target sample, like a geologist of human tissue. I watched every poke and prod on the ultrasound monitor and prayed the most heartfelt prayers I could form, but my thoughts were jumbled beyond sense. I mostly asked God to please hear my heart, to help me through these uncomfortable moments. In another week of agonizing waiting, I would take the call at work. I rationalized my location would not change the results, and I still had a bit of hope left in me. At work, I sat down in a quiet space between patient visits. A close friend and coworker was working on paperwork in the same nook. I answered my cell phone within seconds of it ringing. It was my nurse navigator. She told me she had both good news and bad news. The good news was there was a second concerning area within my breast (I had been too overwhelmed to even remember their telling me about this second area) and the findings were benign, a fibroadenoma. The bad news was to follow—an aggressive stage 2 malignant tumor had rapidly developed and broken through a duct in my left breast, and it had not stopped there. My rate of cell proliferation was so rapid it had already traveled to a local lymph node, and it was at risk for hurriedly traveling to the next.
My friend and coworker across the table could hear this conversation taking place, and she began to cry before I did. She quickly notified my other coworkers and before I knew much more, I was encircled and they had laid hands upon me in prayer, each of us in tears… a sacred moment in time I will never forget. The trauma of the news left my memory of the details of that day somewhat a blur. At my request, my coworker called Ryan and requested he come get me. I was trembling. The tears rushed out of my face at such a rate I became dizzy, disoriented. This was my worst nightmare playing out in real-time. How could this happen to me? I was 29 and the healthiest I had ever been. This could not be accurate. But it was, and my life and my life’s purpose were both forever changed.
Ryan came to get me, and we tearfully embraced. We did not say much, both still in shock. We sat on the couch at my home and cried together. We had a dinner reservation that night at our favorite romantic restaurant and I had been planning to wear the new fun red dress I had purchased in anticipation of having a reason to celebrate. That same little glimmer of hope had lived on, and we were planning to celebrate good things as a result. It seemed obvious we would be canceling our reservation and staying in, but then we made a choice. Instead of allowing breast cancer to dictate our plans, we went to dinner anyway. We laughed and we shed tears over candlelight, and those moments became symbolic of how we would move through my cancer diagnosis and treatment together. Though the light might have been faint and flickering at times, it was still visible, and it was all the reason to press onward.
My greatest fear through cancer was not for my own mortality; rather, it was cancer would steal my joy. ‘When will I be able to smile again? How many years until I can laugh again?’ With these as my primary concerns, I refused to relinquish my joy. I found the light in every day and I made a point to laugh whenever I could. We postponed our wedding a full year and we grew only closer through my chemotherapy, mastectomy, and multiple reconstructive surgeries. My journey was very much our journey together, and we learned what ‘in sickness and in health’ truly meant, well before we ever walked down the aisle. And when we did, it was more than a wedding. It was a celebration of life and living—in the present progressive tense. In meeting him at the altar, I was finally able to exhale.
Friends and acquaintances mean well, but it has been difficult to answer the questions related to family planning. Though I am cancer-free, this does not mean my body is yet ready or able to become pregnant. In my plan of care, the medications I must remain on preclude that from being medically possible, if possible, until they are concluded in later 2021. Watching my friends (outside of the cancer community) have beautiful babies and celebrating these babies become toddlers and young children has been challenging, though I do carry authentic happiness for them.
As I approach my 5 years cancer-free this year, I am learning how much my story really does matter. As I share different facets of my journey with men and women both in my community and on social media, I am discovering how much my story is needed because it shines a ray of hope for other young adults, whether newly diagnosed or in their first 1 to 2 years after diagnosis. They need to see there is life during and after cancer, and I am demonstrating exactly that. The presence of cancer does not mean the absence of joy. We can live with intention, driven by goals and driven by hope. It does not come easy, but it is both doable and attainable, one day at a time, other times one hour at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time. No matter one’s clinical prognosis, our prognosis for happiness comes from within and with the help of our support systems, and with the amazing community of supportive cancer thrivers and survivors present on social media, we are never alone.
And together, we can work to break down stigmas created by society. We know firsthand healing is not linear and it does not follow the respective timelines others might anticipate or expect. Rest becomes a practice just as valuable as an activity, and we must prioritize and observe this as a time for reparative healing. Rest is productive! And just because our hair grows back and we may no longer look sick, that does not indicate we are not still struggling with the many complex facets of our lives in this post-cancer, post-Armageddon life. Everything we know has changed in some way. How could we ever be the same?
Many of us no longer recognize our bodies after the many surgeries and treatments, and we work incredibly hard to forgive our bodies for changing. If we were not safe within our bodies before, when cancer was silently brewing, how could we feel safe now? We exist in a world no longer mapped out for us by scheduled infusions, treatments, surgeries, and appointments. Enter ‘scanxiety’ and the challenges of survivorship, a state of being where we become hyperaware of our body’s every fluctuation, and we sleep with one eye open.
When I share my own story, I always think about ‘my why.’ What drives me to keep sharing is my mission to drop breadcrumbs of hope throughout the internet with a dream those in need will discover my messages, whether through hashtags or shares. I envision the men and women who will be diagnosed tomorrow, those who will be diagnosed in 2 weeks, and those who will be diagnosed in two years. Stories of success and a return to health are what they need to find and maintain hope, and they are reasons to never ever let cancer steal their joy.
It is for these reasons we crave and need community with one another. Many of those who have not experienced cancer, despite their best attempts to relate, cannot relate or identify in the same manner someone who has walked this path before. There is much growth and beautiful healing to be found in feeling validated, in feeling supported, in feeling seen and heard. And I can promise you, there is life during and after cancer, and it is worth passionately pursuing.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mindy Miller from Springfield, MO. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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