“I glanced at the to-do list one more time. I still needed to pick up more moving boxes, call the contractor about the incomplete paving job on the front sidewalk, email the leasing office with our move in details, take our son Liam for his one-year check up, buy a birthday gift, list the lawn mower on Facebook Marketplace, clean out the basement, take another pile of donations to Goodwill, pick up more pull-ups for our daughter Olivia, figure out what to make for dinner… I stopped reading. The list would have to wait for now, because I was about to be late for my ultrasound to check a weird lump in my breast. Another task I couldn’t wait to check off!
I kicked some moving boxes out of the way, grabbed my keys, and kissed Olivia who had just woken up from her nap. I said goodbye to my husband, Will, who was resting on the couch after working two weeks straight of night shift. Poor guy was constantly exhausted, clocking 80-100 hours a week as a new doctor. Thankfully, the long, grueling intern year was finally coming to an end and we were moving from Baltimore, Maryland to New York City in a few short weeks to finish the remainder of his training. Since Will and I had gotten married eight years prior, we had lived a pretty stressful, high speed life. Between two kids in three years, medical school debt, a job where I worked both days and nights, buying and selling our first house, and now an out-of-state move, we mostly lived on coffee and fumes.
I closed the front door quietly to not wake Liam who was still napping in his crib upstairs and breathed a sigh of relief. It was my first moment alone in weeks with no one crying, no one asking for snacks, and away from the chaos of our half-packed house with contractors coming and going all day long. Even though it was for a doctor’s appointment, the thought of spending an hour away from my baby and toddler sounded luxurious. Little did I know my peace was about to be blown into a million pieces.
The radiologist stumbled over her words. ‘This… we… it looks like cancer. I don’t know what it could be if it’s not cancer. It has all the signs. I’m… I’m really sorry. There are great treatment options… ‘ her voice trailed off but I had already stopped listening. Shock followed by numbness overtook my body. What was happening right now? I was a healthy, 30-year-old woman with no family history of breast cancer. I had two babies at home, a husband at the beginning of his medical career, a house under contract, an apartment lease in another state where we had no friends or family, and a whopping six-figure student loan debt. I drove home in a haze, the to-do list suddenly a thing of the past. My mind now buzzed in a series of ‘oh crap’ moments as I thought of how all the pieces of my life I held together were now in danger of falling apart as a result of the news.
It had been a year since I’d given up my role as a pediatric nurse in a world-renowned teaching hospital to stay home with our babies. We had lived off of my salary while Will worked incredibly hard through medical school and research years—padding his application to be competitive for a good residency. The decision had been my own—what I had worked for for years—but it meant sacrificing vacations, new clothes, and the job title I had worn so proudly. We shopped at Goodwill, drove old cars, and clipped coupons, but we had made a life for ourselves and were raising two beautiful kids. I had always been the glue holding our family together and propelling us forward. And now after all the sacrifices and investments of time and money to build Will’s career and our family, I was going to die?
When I got home, Will and I stood in the living room, holding each other and crying. We held Olivia and Liam and cried. We called our families and cried. Finally, we crept into bed, exhausted but determined to take things one day at a time and to remain a team as we faced this new adversary. Whatever lay ahead, we knew we faced it together. The next few weeks were a blur as I went from appointment to appointment getting vials of blood drawn, scans of every kind, and meeting with two different oncology teams—one in Maryland and one in New York. We learned I had triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma, which meant the cancer had arisen from a milk duct in my breast and it was not fueled by hormones, like most breast cancers. It was fast growing, aggressive, and had limited treatment options.
I also found out I carry a BRCA1 gene mutation which puts my lifetime risk of breast cancer at 87% and my lifetime risk of ovarian cancer at 60%. Processing this information was difficult. Not only was cancer growing rapidly in my body, but my broken DNA was to blame. This meant in addition to hard core chemotherapy, I would need radical surgery (removing both breasts and ovaries) to reduce my risk of the cancer coming back.
During all this, our house went to settlement, contractors were in and out, my brother graduated high school, we celebrated Liam’s first birthday, I shopped for a wig, said goodbyes to friends I’d known since high school, and prepared to move. Life just kept going and going and I felt like I could barely process what was happening. My head felt like it was spinning with everything I needed to get done now that ‘survive breast cancer’ topped the list. Family and friends graciously stepped in to help, covering the cost of professional movers, bringing meals, sending cards, offering to babysit, and going to appointments with me.
Within a week of arriving in New York, I had surgery to have a port-a-cath placed in my chest. I had barely met my next door neighbor and learned how to use my laundry card before I was laid out on the operating table with a catheter threaded through a large vessel into my heart. The chemo would go straight into my bloodstream and travel through my entire body, killing every rapidly dividing cell. I had cared for cancer patients during my time as a nurse and I had watched the slow bodily decline: the hair loss, the fevers, the emotional instability caused by steroids, the glassy eyes, the fatigue, the anguish. I thought I knew what was coming. But I really, I didn’t.
Chemotherapy left me lost for words. My first round of Adriamycin (known as ‘the red devil’ and rumored to be able to melt the linoleum off a floor) and Cytoxan had me running for the bathroom within minutes of starting the infusion. My bladder seized and burned as red urine splashed into the toilet below me. I had been pre-medicated with steroids, Benadryl, Pepcid, Zofran, preparing my body for the poison which would wreak havoc on every system. The first day in the infusion center took eight hours. When I got home, I took the nausea medication prescribed and laid down. I could already feel a dull roar growing inside me. My mouth felt dry and tasted oily, my stomach churned, my scalp prickled and my bones ached. I slept fitfully, waking up drenched in sweat and feeling like I had the worst flu of my life.
Ten days after my first infusion, my hair began to shed. My long, red hair had begun coming out in handfuls and I was powerless to do anything but pull out the buzzer and let Will do the honors. It was freeing, in a way, that the hair was now gone. I had dreaded the hair loss since the day I was diagnosed and I was glad to be done with it. But I felt vulnerable and exposed. I had cancer. And now the whole world would know.
As the chemo progressed, so did the side effects. My gums and tongue blistered with ulcers and stung when I ate, but the steroids kept me voraciously hungry. My GI system was constantly upset—vacillating between nausea, cramping, diarrhea, and constipation, coupled with rectal bleeding. As my eyebrows and eyelashes fell out and my eyes dulled from the steroids, I wanted nothing more than to hide in my apartment—away from curious stares and sympathetic looks. My blood counts dipped, tanking my immune system and keeping me breathless from the low hemoglobin. Week after week, I faithfully trudged to the infusion center, watched the poison drip in, and trudged home. I was weak and oh so tired. I hovered in a depression for weeks, crying non-stop and wondering how staying alive could feel so much like dying.
My to-do list sat untouched for days. My kids needed what precious energy I had so out of pure desperation, I learned to accept help and casseroles from people I barely knew. Friends and family came to visit and I made friends with other moms at the park nearby and even in my apartment building. Will’s co-residents stopped by and offered to babysit our kids so we could get a break. My best friend, Stacey, created a Go Fund Me account and hundreds of people donated so we didn’t have to worry about how we would pay for treatment. At every turn, incredible people showed up for me when I had literally nothing to offer in return. They loved me when I could barely face my own reflection in the mirror. They helped me see even a short walk around a city block was a huge accomplishment. They bridged the gaps in my life I simply couldn’t.
After five and a half months, I finished chemo and cried in Will’s arms as the entire infusion center clapped and cheered for me. ‘We did it,’ I whispered. ‘I can’t believe we did it.’ After a month of recovery, I underwent a double mastectomy and a complete hysterectomy to lower my risk of cancer coming back. I was declared cancer free in December, after seven harrowing months. I knew there was still more surgery and healing in my future, but I was happy. I was at peace.
I once thought I was the glue holding my life together. I didn’t know how to survive without checking off my to-do list at breakneck speed. I rushed through my days, accomplishing goals, and planning out the future. Then cancer happened and slowed my life way down. What really mattered was simply today—the time I had in the present and the people I shared it with. I don’t want to waste a second with the people I love. If the cancer returns tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, I hope it finds me enjoying and loving and living in the present. All we have is today—right now—this very moment.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Erin Plum of New York City, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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