Eleven Years Later

Eleven years ago, on April 24th, I was officially diagnosed with a fast-moving form of breast cancer.  I was 25 years old, had only been married 21 months.  For a variety of reasons, but mostly because I had to wait for a few doctors to remove their heads from their bums and get on board with my treatment plan, I didn’t have surgery until May 16th.  That is an ETERNITY in waiting when you have cancer.

Every year, the time between April 24th and May 16th is weird for me.  This year it’s been especially weird and I decided it was time to sit down and figure out what’s going on in my brain and heart.

Anniversaries are special and different, as they should be.  Not only are those days hallmarks of who we are and what life has become for us, but they are days of remembrance.  We remember events, people, and frequently, forgotten memories flood back on those special days.

For instance, most days I couldn’t tell you very many things about the Diagnosis Day, but every year on April 24th, I remember that I was wearing jeans and blue t-shirt, and standing in the arts and crafts aisle at Target when the call came in.  I remember that Greg had been standing with me, but just a minute earlier had walked a few aisles ahead of me and I wasn’t sure what the appropriate gesture was for, “Hey, I think my doctor is about to tell me I have cancer”.

I remember going completely numb.  I remember putting down the red wire basket on the floor, and then going back to move it, so someone wouldn’t trip over it.  We left Target, barely talking, and somehow made it home.  I don’t remember the drive, but I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe.

Then, very suddenly, I was just glad I knew.  I had waited four days between the biopsy and the phone call.  I felt like I had lived many years, but hadn’t breathed enough breaths in those four days.  Knowing was a relief and suddenly, the air finally felt like it was getting all the way to the bottom of my ribcage.

I remember things from many of the different important days in my walk with cancer, but Diagnosis Day is unique in how specific my brain gets in reminding me of what happened.

In the reminders, come emotions.  Lots of them.  Since it’s been eleven years, I don’t think about cancer every day.  I see my multitude of scars every day, but I don’t feel anything in particular.  It’s part of who I am now.  However, on the anniversaries, ALL of the emotions come flooding back.  I remember panic, fear, anger, frustration, doubt, nausea.  I feel that heart-squeezing feeling of not knowing if I was going to be alive in a few years.  I remember wondering if my parents were going to have to bury me.  I felt and thought things that no person, let alone a 25 year old girl, should feel or think.

The blessing of time is that I don’t feel those things all the time.  If I did, I would be wrapped in a nice, comforting white jacket somewhere in a room while doctors hovered anxiously nearby.  I’m glad that those emotions go to a safe place for 360 days out of the year.

So, the question remains.  Why are the anniversaries so hard?  It’s not just the emotions flooding back or the memories becoming de-cobwebbed and aired out again.  It’s much more than that.

As a friend pointed out last night while I was in a pretty crabby headspace is that it’s okay to grieve.  My initial response was a very classy “Nuh-uh”.  I didn’t think I had anything more to grieve.  I mean, it’s over.  Right?  What else is left to grieve?

I don’t have real boobs anymore.  I don’t really care.  My new ones are part of me and are normal to me.  The six by four inch scar on my leg is not startling to me anymore.  The round scars on my side where the tubes poked out are no more strange to me than the freckles surrounding them.  The scars on my stomach after a very scary surgery, made scarier by my cancer history, are a part of me, too.

Even though I’m pretty excited about being able to wear strapless dresses without the hardware underneath it and that I can comfortably go running in just a t-shirt, the truth is I did lose something.  I lost a lot.

I lost months of health.  I lost the ability to go into a doctor’s office and confidently know that everything is probably alright with me.  I lost a big part of my femininity.  I lost many nights of sleep in sickness and worry.  I’ve lost the ability to be a “normal” 36 year old.

I’m different now.  My story is longer and more complicated than many stories will ever be.  I have chronic pain due to a nice parting shot from chemotherapy.  I don’t get to make plans knowing that I will be able to keep them.  I hardly ever get to be pain free.  I battle depression, winning most of the time, but I still have to fight it.

All of those things are worth mourning.  They are hard.  They are difficult.  They are life-changing.  And, it’s okay to cry over them once a year.

Lest I leave my mourning in an inappropriate place of honor, I have to remember that cancer did not just take things away.  It also gave me everything that I had the ability to learn.

My life is better, richer, and more full for having had cancer.  I don’t take my health for granted.  I don’t take the gift of my three year old son as something that I deserved to have.  I rejoice in the hours, and sometimes days, that are pain-free.  I have flashes of overwhelming thankfulness for something as silly as watching my son point to the letters of the alphabet during closing circle time at his school.  My faith in God has been challenged, has been stretched almost to breaking, has cracked in places, but has not broken.  In my search for the why of cancer, I learned that God is bigger than me, that His plan for me is more wonderful and elaborate than I could ever imagine, the Christ Himself prays for me (seriously, does it get any better than that?), and that God has held me close in every sleepless night, in every terrifying surgery, and has given me His strength when I had none left.

It’s not just about me, either.  I have walked with many women through scares of breast cancer as well as the reality of a diagnosis.  I have been able to look into the pit that threatens to swallow them and say, “I’ve been down there.  It won’t keep you forever.”  I can show them my scars and not cry, showing them that life won’t continue to be this awful.  My empathy has grown by leaps and bounds and I’ve gained an ability to “see” when someone is hurting.

I would never trade in the grief if I had to give up the blessing as well.

And so, after untwisting my brain a bit, I’ve realized that anniversaries bring remembrances, pain, grief, joy, thankfulness and some pretty deep introspection.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that all of it is okay!

And wine.  Wine and chinese food with chocolate for dessert are all okay, too.


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20 Responses to Eleven Years Later

  1. roarajane says:

    Mmm. This makes me breathe in deep and get all thankful for you. I love you so much.

  2. Gloria Stolarski says:

    Written so well. Thank you Mary. It is hard to articulate what goes on in the mind of a young woman who must face cancer. It is hard to tell a peer what it is like to have to face your possible departure from earth. It is hard to think about how to prepare for possible death, should the treatment not work. It is hard to go through the treatment. Sometimes, though you don’t want to leave your loved ones, you wish the pain and misery of treatment would end. Anyway, I like you am glad to have gone through it. I am grateful for the life lessons learned. Love to you, Gloria.

    • Love you back, Gloria. I will never forget some of those talks we had when I was first diagnosed. I remember most that you said, “And, that’s okay” to just about everything I said. I needed that reassurance and knowledge that what I was feeling and going through was okay and that I was going to make it through, no matter what the end of the journey looked like.

  3. Catherine says:

    tears running down my face – so glad we have you!

  4. Cheekypinky says:

    So, so glad that you’re HERE.

  5. Bee says:

    I’m glad you’re here, sweet sister. I love you just as you are. (And I still smirk to myself every time I think of the jumping-up-and-down incident at Mom and Dad’s. Boobs are so weird.)

  6. Patty Moller says:

    I remember the day you came into the church office to talk to Pastor Bob about your diagnosis. You explained to Annie and I what you had and you seemed so calm although I’m sure you weren’t. I watched you go through the whole ordeal of surgery asking the Lord to heal you. What an example you were to us ladies as we watched you go through the chemo etc. and never complained and still had a smile. Most importantly, you reached out to my mom when she was diagnosed breast cancer and for that I will always be grateful to you. She is 6 years cancer free PTL! and I’m so grateful you are 11 years cancer free. I sure do miss you Mary…you were always one of my favorite ‘Masters’ girls that stayed at our home. Love and miss you bunches. Patty Moller

    • Oh, Patty! I miss you! I was sorta calm that day. I think I had been gone through so many emotions in the waiting for answers period that calm was all I had left. 🙂 I am so thankful for all of you to help me get through that hard time. I’m so thankful that I was able to talk to your mom, too. It makes it so much more valuable an experience once it starts to help other people. Love you lots.

  7. Kiert says:

    I remember you calling and saying, “get over here we have something to tell you.” And bringing you a chocolate cake. And leftovers. Lots of leftovers. OK, I’m getting teary. Love you so much, precious friend. I am so thankful for your perspective on life.

  8. Sara Fesler says:

    Mary I just found your blog thru your FB posting and have read all your recent posts and the one on Chronic Pain. Since my emotional self was all over the place, it is hard to express my appreciation-thankfulness in a few lines. I love your humor, insight, honesty, faith, courage, and your delightful style that is so you. I hope new help is just ahead for your pain issues. We have a commonality there, and I too will be seeing someone in Integrated Medicine soon. Loving you always. Thank You.

  9. Natalie Jones says:

    Hi Mary,

    Just found your blog and appreciate catching up with your history here. I, too, have had some serious health issues the last few years (nothing like cancer, but I nearly died giving birth to my now 3-yr-old and there have been repercussions from that which we’re still trying to sort out). And sometimes I would look back to our time at Master’s and particularly our time in Theory. Not because I loved theory — hate is too strong, but not by much. But because of Dr. Mays. How he’d pray for us. And challenge us. And how Nita would come occasionally in those first few years. And how she and Dr. Mays would model for us a love for Jesus that was amazing. And how they would model graciousness and faith in such difficult circumstances.

    Then I would remember that I, too, am called to live in a gracious faith and a love for Jesus even when it was difficult. Even when I couldn’t care for my family and had to have babysitters until Stephen came home from work. It has been hard. (It’s much better now.) But I am so thankful that God allowed me to meet those two wonderful people. And I can’t help but think they must have been in your mind once or twice, too. You were around them even more than I was.

    God was so kind to us, wasn’t he? To give us the people we’d need in our past to help us deal with our future. Neither of us would have dreamed what God called us to. But he was so kind to prepare our hearts beforehand.

    And I totally agree, my empathy has grown bunches, too!

    Miss you, friend!

    • Natalie, I hadn’t really thought about Ken and Nita in quite that way, but totally

    • I hadn’t really thought about what you said in those words, but yeah! Ken and Nita and a few other people have set the bar lovingly and faithfully high for those of us following after them. I do think about them a lot and am so thankful for their example to all of us.

      I hate to think of getting to the point where we are old enough to be examples to other people, but I guess that’s the point, huh? 🙂

      I’m so glad I found you on Facebook. Do you have a blog? I’d love to catch up on your life, too!

      • Natalie Jones says:

        Hi Mary,
        No, I don’t blog. We stay up with Facebook pretty well, and you can certainly email me and I’d love to share with you that way.

        Yes, we are called to be examples even at a young age. 1 Timothy 4:12 — the verse Stephen picked out for us as we began dating — “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity show yourself an example to those who believe. Unfortunately, that “youthfulness” is getting further and further away. Lol!

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