A short blue and white striped number, it tied at the waist and opened in the front. My little get-up wasn’t a slinky party dress to ring in the new year but more “standard issue” for the place where I found myself that New Years Eve Day.
What's more is that there was another woman in the room wearing the exact same outfit.
After my husband found the hard-as-a-rock, walnut-sized lump in my right breast, I took the first available appointment for a mammogram. So, on the last day of December, I put on the Sutter Hospital “go to” that all the girls wore and wished I were somewhere else.
“I know where you can get cheap chemo,” the tech told me while my boob was crushed in the machine’s vise-like grip. Her words echoed in my head, but I chased them away. After all, even if her unauthorized diagnosis was correct, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it that afternoon. When the exam was over, I tossed the "gown" into a bin and made my way home.
That night, my family and I got dressed up for a New Year’s Eve party at my friend Lisa’s house. I decided to wear a twinkling silver skirt, a soft-as-a-kitten crop top, and sky blue ear rings that lit up with flashing LED’s. That ensemble was a departure from my usual style, but I had a feeling that my chance to wear super fun clothes was closing in on me. I also suspected I might lose my hair to chemo, so that night, I spent a little extra time with the blow dryer too. Suddenly, the limp baby-fine hair I'd always cursed didn’t seem so bad.
When my diagnosis was confirmed, things moved fast. Triple negative breast cancer is aggressive, and mine had already spread to my lymph nodes and sternum.
Typically, throughout the month of December, I make resolutions in lots of different categories: work goals, home improvement plans, spiritual milestones, health resolutions and improvements in relationships. I write everything down, and when my birthday rolls around in March, I schedule time to review my progress.
With a fresh cancer diagnosis, that annual ritual changed. My painstakingly prepared New Year’s resolutions, a practice I take seriously, flew by the wayside. The items on my list seemed pointless – all except one.
People frequently talk about fighting a battle with cancer, but for me, I knew the real fight I’d be engaged in was going to be in my head. Breast cancer is physical, but the only part about my situation I could hope to control resided in my brain and in my heart.
So that year I turned to the spiritual milestones I hoped to achieve and took them to heart.
Could I trust that my family, especially my husband and child, would flourish regardless of what happened to me? Could I let go of injustices I’ve suffered and forgive myself for mistakes I’ve made? Could I endure my condition with love in my heart and stay open to humor, grace, and joy? Would I remember that God is with me, in me, every step of the way, all the time?
Five years ago this week, my life changed forever. Since then, I’ve been through chemo, I’ve had the remaining cancerous lump surgically removed, I’ve endured the surreal marathon of daily radiation, and I’ve regrown my hair. I’ve lived through moments when it appeared that death was imminent. And through it all, mostly, I’ve been happy and at peace.
Breast cancer has taught me many lessons, but mostly, it forced me to slow down, re-learn and seriously practice truths I already know. For me, winning the “battle” doesn’t have much to do with whether or not my body survives its ordeal. I didn't fight cancer in the infusion room or at the doctor’s office. It’s far more private than that, more profound, and more lasting.
For the first time in five years, I feel strong enough to resume my annual ritual of making resolutions. But now I know that the goals on my list are all spiritual quests, because in the end, it’s the invisible, intangible, often unnoticeable aspects of life that count the most. That realization helps me survive with grace in tact, and it will guide me through the times to come.
Happy New Year.
This piece was published first at BreastCancer-News.com, a fabulous resource for patients and the people who love them.