What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Familiar words. But not something most of us want to think about.
We live our lives with blithe confidence, believing that things will continue on a straight, familiar path: a job, a family, a weekend trip to the beach. The occasional headache or bout of sniffles are our only health concerns.
Until something big and devastating comes along: cancer. And then everything changes.
Breast cancer shatters your belief that you’ll live a long, healthy life. Where once you envisioned dandling grandchildren on your knee, now you wonder if you’ll live to see your teenage son graduate from high school.
That was the situation I found myself in 17 years ago this month: a happy, uneventful, middle-class life. A husband, and a 15-year-old son just finishing his freshman year in high school.
A job I liked; girlfriends and chick flicks and margaritas. Normalcy.
On May 10, 2001, that all changed. A breast-cancer diagnosis that morning drove rational thought from my brain, the air from my lungs, and the strength from my legs. Fear consumed me.
Will I die? When? How? I can’t die. I have to see my son through high school. He has to get through college; I can’t die until he’s grown up.
But what if I do?
Soon enough, I got onto the cancer treadmill that so many women have trod before me. And as the journey began, fear gradually receded. I simply didn’t have the energy to be frightened; it took everything I had to survive treatment.
First, surgery. In fact, three surgeries, spread over 9 weeks — the first two carving off my breast, the third restoring my shape.
Chemo; on 9/11/01 (yes, the 9/11), I was one month in, and just starting to lose my hair. As I watched the World Trade Center explode in flames. I felt I was in the center of an apocalypse: death around me, death within me.
Neutropenic pneumonia, a residue of chemo, hit next. I spent Christmas that year hooked up to an oxygen tank, which hissed and clanged as I dragged it around the house behind me.
By the time I got to radiation, cancer treatment was becoming old hat. Get naked and let those X-rays burn into my flesh? Sure, bring it on.
Lymphedema was the final kick in the pants. But by that time — what’s one more complication?
On Valentine’s Day, 2002, I completed radiation. Nine months and five days after diagnosis, I was finished with the active part of treatment.
Eight years after that, I was done with hormone therapy. Although I still see my oncologist yearly, I’m no longer actively fighting cancer. I won the battle — and hopefully the war.
What was the most important thing I took away from that whole devastating experience?
My life. Especially my life as a mother.
My son is now 31 years old. A college grad, he’s hitchhiked through Europe, lived in Africa, worked in China, went to grad school in London, and is now making films in Los Angeles.
That moment 17 years ago, when I told him I had cancer, he was silent. After a few perfunctory questions, I left his room, closed the door, and at that point — though I didn’t know it then — the door on his childhood had closed, too.
His belief in his mother’s immortality had been shattered. It was time to grow up.
So, grow up he did — and I was there. For the soccer goals, the homework battles, the college applications, the girlfriend crises and summer job hunts. I saw him through to adulthood, and I thank God every day I had that opportunity.
If breast cancer comes back now, I won’t give in to it willingly. I still imagine grandchildren, and old age, and a son settling into middle age. But I feel like I ran a long race, and won; my son became a man, and I was there for him.
Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow survivor moms; may we all be there for our sons and daughters, today and for many Mother’s Days to come.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.