I will forever remember the phone call.
The stranger on the other end of the telephone line saying “I have some bad news.”
The news was that I had invasive ductile cancer. Whatever that meant I thought to myself, as I sat listening, numb, and in a daze.
Two tumors. One quite large. Soon I would be hearing from a surgeon to discuss my options, which would most likely include some combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, she said. The woman mentioned some statistics. I tried to write things down. It was a lot to digest.
Still, it was one of those moments in life that remain vivid in your memory for years to come. The kind of moment that is etched in your mind down to the very last detail of where you were standing and what you were doing when this giant, life altering thing came to pass.
I remember it in the same way I remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing when I watched the Twin Towers collapse on 9-11 and the world forever changed.
Except this time the life changing event was vastly more personal.
I was home with my then one-year old son, Aidan. We were sitting on his bedroom floor playing - having a perfect, peaceful morning. The kind of morning I had come to treasure. When I started crying, Aidan, never having seen his mother cry, first started giggling. Then he became very silent, not sure exactly what was happening.
I sat in front of him lost in a whirlwind of thoughts – what about Aidan? How will I, as a single mother, battle cancer, go through chemotherapy, and take care of a toddler on my own? How will I continue to work and pay my monthly, mountain of bills? Will I have to move out of my house and go live with my family? For someone who had been a single woman living on her own for years, the thought of giving up my own space, my freedom, my home, my independence, was hard to digest.
Those thoughts continued for days, until my head ached from thinking so much. I had always been fiercely independent, probably to a fault. Yes, definitely to a fault. An only child, I learned to survive on my own in many ways, never comfortable asking friends for help. I’m not the touchy feely type. Instead I learned to build up walls and get by.
All of that was months ago. I have learned so many truly important lessons since then. Most importantly, how to let the walls down, reach out to the people who love me and let them help me. I cannot stress how important this is.
You can’t do this alone. You won’t do this alone. But you can do it on your terms.
There have been several turning points in my journey with cancer so far. But one that opened my mind tremendously was a telephone conversation with the executive director of a national non-profit developed to assist women who have cancer.
As I openly expressed my struggle with the idea of a non-profit helping me, the executive director said bluntly, but compassionately: “Mia, letting others help you is a blessing for them. And when you are better, you will pass on the favor and help others and you will understand what I mean.”
That message is so important to pass along. After that I slowly began to change my ways. It’s so important for single moms out there to do this too. As a single mom you quickly learn to rely on yourself in ways other people don’t always understand. And those skills will help see you through this battle too. But a battle with cancer is not something you can do entirely alone. Nor should you. You need people on this journey. They will help you survive and heal – and win.
Build your support team. Learn to reach out. Learn to pick up the phone and ask for help. It took me some time, months perhaps, but I have slowly done it.
Endless Acts of Kindness and Support.
As I look back over the past few months, I’m profoundly touched by the endless stream of kindness, support and love. Each one teaching me to stop being so stubborn as a human being and learn to allow my friends and family in. These gestures have also taught me how truly important it is to have such a network of love and support.
In the earliest days of my diagnoses, my friend Hildegard hopped on a plane and flew down to San Diego to spend 24 hours cooking for me and stocking my freezer with carefully chosen, healing foods that I could defrost and cook during my daunting chemotherapy treatment.
Not long after that my friend Jessica came over with an entire bag of thoughtful, cancer-fighting gifts. Two giant containers of homemade pasta, coconut oil to help with my terribly dry, chemotherapy-weakened skin. And a bag frozen pineapple to put in the smoothies I would need to drink, in order to fight this battle.
Throughout all of this, my dear friend Shannon persistently reminded me that she was happy to help, in any way she could. Finally, in small ways, I started relenting. Asking her to come over and cook dinner for me when I was exhausted by chemo. Or to just come over, climb up a stepladder and change a light bulb for me on her way home from work. Yes, even simple tasks like these become just too much to handle when chemotherapy has wiped you out, leaving you with dizzy spells, bouts of nausea and body aches all over.
All of these women have taught me the true meaning of friendship. And there are countless more examples. Family members sending me prayers, prayer cards, shawls blessed by nuns and expressing their love in multiple ways. Friends, like my old college roomate Liz, calling me practically each week just check-in and tell me she loves me.
Between my conversation with that executive director, and such persistent, loving reminders from too many friends and family to list here, I'm a changed person. I remain living on my own with my son, but I am a humbled person. Humbled by the love of my family and friends who were so willing to help, happy to help, eager to help. They have made such a difference in what I am able to accomplish. They have given me the time, strength and energy needed to get through this.
I started small. But I have learned to text or call my friends and family to ask for assistance in ways I would have never asked before. You can too.
Never Stop Learning From Others
Recently I watched an interview with another breast cancer patient on television, journalist Joan Lunden. When I heard she was coming on to speak about this subject, I stopped everything I was doing, and sat down and listened intently.
Several of her comments really echoed my own experience, but none more then this one: Lunden said of her battle with cancer “It’s a shame you have to go through something that almost takes life away, to appreciate it (life) more. But it certainly does do it to you.”
“We’re losing our hair in order to live and survive. In order to be there for our families,” she added.
True indeed. Some days lately, I look in the mirror and think to myself – who is that bald person staring back at me. I don’t recognize that person in the mirror anymore. But I spend less then a minute dwelling on such thoughts. I focus on exactly what Lunden said – it is all about surviving to be here for our families.
As a mother, I initially worried about how Aidan would react to my being bald, how would he feel seeing me without the long, soft hair he had grown to know me with during the first year of his life. Aidan hasn't been fazed at all. Sometimes he will lean in and hug my bald head. Or pat it with his hand. It doesn't matter if I don't recognize the woman in the mirror. He still does.
I am laying awake again tonight, as I do on so many nights, with hot flashes from the latest round of chemotherapy. But I am thinking good thoughts. I watch Aidan sleep and think to myself - next week Aidan celebrates his second birthday. And I am still here. That’s all that matters.
One Last Thought for national Breast Cancer Awareness Month
It’s heartbreaking to think that millions of women still have to face this battle with cancer and the fear of not being here anymore to go through life with their loved ones. In 2014 alone, 40,000 women in the United States are expected to die from breast cancer. But October is national Breast Cancer Awareness month. Most of us are already very aware of breast cancer’s existence by now. What’s far more important at this point is turning our energies toward finding a cure. The National Breast Cancer Coalition recently announced that it is working to change the conversation around breast cancer from one of raising awareness to actually putting an end to the disease. The coalition has taken the incredibly bold step of setting a deadline for finding a cure – Jan. 1, 2020. As the coalition said when establishing its goal – hope is a wish. But the deadline is a commitment. Let’s all help get there.