July 21st, 2003 was the date. It’s funny because I actually have to double check the date. I know it’s July, and I know it’s 20-something but I can never remember the exact date. Not sure what that means, but I’ll take as a good sign. Anyway, that’s when I found out I had breast cancer. I was 32 with a one year old son and a three year old daughter. I had to raise them…watch them grow up. I was suppose to be “too young” to have breast cancer. All the breast cancer survivors I knew were old – well older than me at least. In the last, almost six years I’ve learned differently. Any woman can get breast cancer, and I was one of them.
Let me back up a few weeks. It started one night while cooking dinner. I reached up to rub an ache in my breast. What I felt brought me to my knees. It would be the only time during the whole fight that I would feel that way. I had no time to be scared. Who had time for that when fighting cancer and taking care of two children that needed their mom? After a few weeks of tests and figuring out it wasn’t a cyst, I had to have a biopsy. That was a Friday. July 21st was a Monday. Two weeks later, I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy. It hadn’t spread beyond the breast, but the fight wasn’t over.
On September 11th, I started chemo. My dear, sweet sister came to every chemo session with me. She watched the nurses pump Red Devil (Adriamycin) into me while they wore hazmed suits. She watched them poke again and again trying to get a good vein. She got me warm blankets and BBQ chips to take away the awful taste chemo gave me. And through it all she made me laugh. We’d sometimes laugh so hard tears rolled, and we’d hope we weren’t bothering others. Every chemo session my sister helped me make sure I didn’t fall into pity; that I didn’t focus on the bad. Instead, she helped me make memories – good memories that overshadow anything else.
Two weeks after starting chemo I lost my hair. You need to know that I’m a 7th grade English teacher and that I was still teaching. They all knew I was going to lose it, but it was pretty quiet the first day I taught in my hat. They got over that when, on Halloween dressed as Uncle Fester from The Adam’s Family, I went without my hat. I was the same teacher they knew, only bald. I know this is about MY story, but it can’t be told without the 100+ 7th graders I taught that year. Many people wondered why I kept working. If it weren’t for those students there are days I would’ve curled up and let life go by. They wouldn’t let me do that, instead they let me teach bald, share my chemo stories, laugh and most of all – feel normal. There is nothing harder then to be a 32 year old mom fighting breast cancer and feel normal, but those kids let me. Every day they came in and did what they did best – act like 12 year olds. Any thoughts of my troubles couldn’t be in the way with that! When my treatment was over we celebrated, and I had them write a promise to themselves – a promise of what they wanted to do in life. They are seniors now. They’ll get those promises back in a few weeks. I hope I was enough of an example to them that they make sure to fulfill the promise they made.
Two other very special kids made sure I continued to live. Their names are Maggie and Matthew – my babies. At one, then turning two, Matthew had no clue what was happening. He just continued to be active and force me to keep up. Even making sure his move to a “big boy bed” happened with new paint and decorations. I couldn’t lose that memory. I couldn’t let cancer take it. Maggie was different. What four-year-old knows what to do with a mom suddenly bald? She did. She giggled and then went on with life, so I did the same. One of my most precious pictures I have is me bald, holding her all snuggled. She didn’t see a sick mom. She just saw mom, and that’s how it needed to be.
The only person who ever saw me weak was my husband. He saw how I collapsed in bed when the kids went to sleep. He was one of the few to really see me cry. And he was the one that shaved my head – as much as he didn’t want to, he did it for me so that I could be done with it and move on. During all this, he let me do what I needed to do so that I could get through it and to the other side. I did, and then we, as a family, moved on.
In moving on, I’d like to say that being a survivor has made me a perfect person. That I don’t get angry or annoyed, but I still do. I’d like to say it’s made me live every little tiny second of my life fully, but I don’t. What it has done is permitted me to be able to step back and look at life as a whole, a whole that I don’t know the length of. Being able to do that has made me miss less of the good and let me enjoy more of the small. In the big picture, I live more aware than I use to.
What have I done in the last years to live more aware? How have I kept the promise that I made to my 7th graders? I’ve ran a 5k when I’ve never seen myself as a runner. I tried the violin and realized it wasn’t for me. I’ve gone back to school to become a better teacher. And the biggest – I had another baby. Yes another baby. Two years ago my dear sweet Sammy was born. He is the brightest possible symbol of not letting cancer win. On the breast cancer message board I post on, we call cancer “the beast” (lower case “b” because he’s not important enough for a capital). We talk about kicking the beast to the curb, down the street and off the block. When I had Sammy I not only kicked the beast out of town but out of the country. It all sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. I said, in no uncertain terms, that I was winning. I was in control. That I WOULD have a future even if that future ends up being short. And when I look into Sammy’s blue eyes I have no doubts and any weakness is gone. With Sammy’s birth I reached over and took my life back from cancer.
I have a picture on my mantel. In it I’m holding Matthew back from the water, and Maggie is throwing rocks. When that picture was taken I had found the lump but didn’t know it was cancer. I keep it up to remind myself of who I was and how far I’ve come. Some days I feel like I don’t know that woman anymore and that’s okay. The life I have now is beautiful. My three kids remind me of that. And everyday that I hear Sammy laugh, marvel at Matthew’s energy and smile at the young lady Maggie is becoming, I take another step away from cancer. I take another step into my new life. It’s another step closer to being me – simply me not only a breast cancer survivor.