From Surviving to Thriving: The Extraordinary Spirit of Love
If you were to ask me to briefly explain myself, I would say, “I see myself as an ordinary person with extraordinary experiences. I am amazed at what I’ve been through – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and frankly, I’m extremely grateful to still be cruising on this journey called my life.”
In my twenties, I didn’t feel much different than most aspiring young adults trying to find my place. I had exceptional highs with great friendships, travel, and my early career. And devastating lows. The loss of loved ones will always highlight those years for me. As I walked painfully through loss and disappointments, I tried to find my way. I focused on a MBA, my career, and finding joy in my friends. I volunteered, serving on the Board of Directors for a school for deaf children, and met some wonderful people. I was beginning to thrive after some excruciating years.
Then, at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. To add fuel to the fire, while I was in surgery to remove the cancer, my employer left me a voice mail informing me of my termination. At the time, there was no protection under the law for cancer patients but after some fierce discussions, long-term disability and insurance was our negotiated solution. The road to recovery was long, both literally and figuratively, traveling between four cities for surgery, chemo, and radiation. Family and friends were a tremendous support during this process. What seemed like forever at the time, I was given a clean bill of health after 35 weeks of treatment.
In the 90’s, few would speak of breast cancer above a whisper. THAT was for “older” people. THEY had families with grown children. IT didn’t “happen” to young women in the prime of their lives. But, cancer was just as deadly. I survived as two of my cancer friends lost their battle.
There was no internet. Facebook? What’s that? Caringbridge? Let me know where it is and I’ll cross it. It was a real challenge to stay connected with folks. My parents lived over four hours away and were a tremendous help. Now, they are both gone. I miss them….deeply. It was complicated to stay with them so far away from my home. But I did. As I look back, I feel blessed to have had that love and support of so many during this time. I was young. I was single. I was lonely. I was a person with cancer.
When treatment concluded, I went back to work and relocated. A new start. It was thrilling for me to be in a city that I loved. I was surrounded by friends. I had so many things to do. The city was thriving and so was I!
I couldn’t imagine what was coming in my future. My husband, Andy! Within four months, we were engaged. Four months later, when I was thirty-eight, we were married. BIG BONUS! Andy was aware the physicians believed I would never have children. And Andy, being Andy, said, “I’m not marrying you for your uterus … nine months doesn’t make a mother or a family!” (See why he’s special?)
We were meant to be together. Such a joyful time. And still is.
Guess what … doctors don’t get it right every time! After a total of 52 weeks of bed rest, multiple specialists, in and out of the hospital, and the oh-so-proud monicker of being classified as a high-risk mother-to-be, Andy and I are the proudest of parents of four of the healthiest, beautiful, active, and loving children a Mom and Dad could ever wish for. They are spirited, loving, funny, and compassionate. Four children in less than three years – WOW, huge blessing!
Less than two years ago, for reasons that are not worth detailing, we lived in three different cities. Insane? Yes. Exhausting? Yes. But we all do what we believe is the right thing for our families, right? We believed it was. New communities. New people. New routines. Our family was busy trying to get established. And suddenly, breast cancer.
For eighteen years and two weeks, I proudly called myself a breast cancer survivor. On November 29, 2012, I was forced to hit reset on that counter. During my mammogram, a tumor was discovered and I was diagnosed with a new cancer in the same breast that was treated in the past. Invasive ductal triple-negative carcinoma, with a Nottingham Histologic Grade 3 – a very aggressive type of breast cancer and one that would take the next 18+ months to navigate. Navigate – a politically correct term I use!
Our initial thoughts went to the tough task of informing the children. As it turned out, their reaction gave US strength. Our ten-year old son was most concerned about dissolvable stitches as they are really cool! Who knew?
Frankly, cancer didn’t and does not scare them. They are used to it. It’s been a part of their entire life. Since their birth, they’ve walked in cancer walks, helped other families dealing with cancer, and consoled families who have lost loved ones. They understand but also saw it is just a bump in the road. They believe. And they are right to believe.
Evidence defeats disbelief. And our evidence was countless hours at the ball park, soccer fields, school events, and more. Through nausea, baldness and recuperation, we simply chose to keep living our lives. Was it easy? No. What is worth it? Absolutely.
During this cancer journey, I have endured 7 surgeries and 26 rounds of chemo (including high-dose chemo, the “tough” stuff that I so feared 19 years ago). There is no one more grateful than I to have the opportunity to give these poisons a chance to kill my cancer.
Please know, curve balls were thrown my way. Infections. Hematomas. Surgery complications. Even nasty heart problems and liver issues as a result of the chemo. As a cancer patient, I have had to make “informed choices” over the last 19+ years about chemo, radiation, surgeries, tests, and treatments. All come with warning labels. Each is a calculated risk. I would take nothing back. It’s no fun to get that phone call that you are one of the 1%-2% that get the side effects they warn you about. Yet, we feel confident in the path we have taken … and that we are taking. Our doctors have been great. And if, at this time, the most irritating component to this journey is me taking a few more medications a day … bring it on!
I’ll soon start follow-up visits every three months to ensure things are still going well. More blood work, echo-cardiograms, scans, and a host of other tests in my future. Keeping a close eye to ensure the cancer doesn’t return!
Reality check. I’m human and it’s not a fun journey! Many times my heart breaks for my family. I hate that my kids have a mom with cancer. I hate that my husband has to plan his schedule around my treatment, not to mention be a “single parent” on many days due to my inability to lend a helping hand. I hate what cancer does to our family financially, emotionally, logistically, and all of the daily pressure. I hate that I wasn’t up, decorating, and cooking for the holidays. I hate being tired. There are many things I hate about cancer, but I choose to believe that my kids will be stronger and our family more solid.
We choose to not let life’s circumstances define us. We choose to let HOW we show up in the face of these circumstances to define us. It’s what we can control. And it’s been a wise set of choices so far.
It’s easy for folks in this situation to ask the “Why me?” question. Our answer to our children, “Why NOT Mom?” I am strong enough to fight, we have a deep faith, and a strong family. Cancer doesn’t “pick” people. It happens.
I’ve been blessed with a wealth of relationships during my life. I’ve learned they are a good barometer of how things are during times like this. And as I’ve learned during an immense amount of 5th grade Geologic homework this year, pressure and stress over time can create anything from fossils to fuels to diamonds.
Some relationships I thought would provide fuel for us have been fossilized, left only as an impression in our history. Other relationships have been fueled, growing richer, warmer, and deeper. These have continued to touch our hearts and keep my family and me going forward through the toughest of times. Further, we’ve discovered new relationships that never existed before and have become precious gems that we have come to treasure deeply. It’s been incredibly humbling to experience.
One of my favorite songs is “Seasons of Love” from the soundtrack of the Broadway Show “Rent.” When you hear it, the lyrics share about how to measure a year. There are countless examples but the answer is that we should measure it in love. My family, the Blights, choose to channel the spirit of this song and measure our last year in love! 525,600 minutes of living each moment, finding joy and love in our children, treasuring those who have supported and helped us, choosing to remain good friends to others, and remaining involved in our community.
I’ve been through a multitude of experiences; each has brought me to today. So have you. I’m blessed beyond words. So are you. While we don’t know what our future journey will bring, we plan to become cancer free, make new memories and be grateful for all of the love!by