3 Years in the Clouds
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Three years ago this week, the best word to describe the unexpected jolt that I experienced to my existence, is devastation. I guess in retrospect, I actually knew the words "cancer" were coming. Even still, the day it actually became the beginning of my narrative and what has been such a long journey was, well, devastating. The lump I found from the first moment I felt it, was just wrong. I joked about the "walnut" in my boob to my friends and family to make light of what I knew was so not right. Soon thereafter, my first mammogram was anything but normal. By the time my first biopsy rolled around, I can vividly remember lying on the table in a very cold and barely lit surgical room clenching my pocket rosary with tears rolling down my cheeks, despite my very frightened inner warrior's attempt at withholding any emotions...especially tears. No matter how hard I tried to conceal the waterworks, they just kept a comin'. The day I received the dreaded phone call confirming my worst fear, I was actually dropping my daughter off at her weekly dance class. I saw the number on my caller ID and my heart just sank. I didn't answer it. I dropped her off and drove over to the church that in the weeks leading up to this particular moment, I had spent countless hours pleading God's mercy from this very situation. It was dark, like five o'clock or so in the evening. I parked in front of the church and called the number back. The doctor confirmed everything that I had been fearing. He also added to the nightmare by telling me it had spread to my lymph nodes. Devastated. I hung up. I don't even know what I said to him. I just sat there in my car....sad, scared, angry and confused. Within minutes, my OB-GYN called me. She was my first responder. The person I called when I found my lump. She is the person I give the credit to for setting me on this path of discovery and ultimately healing. I thank God each and every day that I made that call when I did. She told me she had already contacted a team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We talked for awhile, and just like the previous conversation I don't really remember much. I drove home and I walked straight into my bedroom and I closed the door. I went into the master bathroom and I started to cry. I sobbed. I literally fell to my knees. I placed my hands on the cold tile floor. It was as if I couldn't hold myself up at all. I was this scared, sad, sobbing heap on the bathroom floor. It was this moment that I uttered the words "I can't do this". It was also during this mass state of overwhelming emotion and confusion that my new team was already contacting me. I was literally on the floor, crying and this new team of people were calling me scheduling more tests and appointments. It was such a whirlwind. That response, however, is what I needed. I needed people there for me to help me up...immediately. Again, I'm so incredibly grateful that my life was put in the hands of such caring and capable people. My silver lining.
Last week, my 17 year old niece told me to watch the movie "Clouds". In all honesty it was such a great movie, but it was also a little traumatic for me to watch. It was astoundingly beautiful, but a trigger nonetheless. In the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, a teenage boy who was facing a terminal cancer diagnosis was sitting on the front step of his house talking with his mom as a gentle snowfall came down all around him. It sounds cheesy, but I've always seen magic in the beauty of a snowfall when others often see annoyance. Even as a little girl, I would tell anyone who would listen that sometimes when the sun hits the snowflakes just so, it appears as if there are diamonds in the snow! It is both peaceful and magical. It isn't weird to me that this is a scene that was going to resonate so much with me. 3 years ago, while I didn't have a terminal diagnosis, I did find out that I had cancer. The kind of cancer that had spread and that would require a whole lot of treatment, way more than I thought I could even handle. As I've been reflecting for awhile now about this cancerversary milestone, this movie, this scene, the snow....there was a message in it for me and exactly what I needed to remind myself of what this all means to me. The pain, the worry, the light, the dark...there is purpose in it, I'm certain. In this unforgettable scene, the mom uttered these words to her son:
"I know what you're facing, knowing that your time is limited... it is scary and awful and I hate it. I've been thinking that none of us are really promised tomorrow, we all just assume it will be there. Maybe it's kind of like a painting you know when you're standing too close to it and you see dark pits and light pits, but you don't even really know what your'e looking at until you take a step back. So maybe as much as this sucks, maybe this is some kind of weird chance for you... to forget about all of the superficial stuff that people waste their time on. You get to decide what matters most now. You get to choose what your painting is going to look like."
I'm reminded of the dark pits and light pits almost daily. I am so grateful to be cancer free right now and hopefully for the rest of my days, but that is not a guarantee. Despite being high risk for recurrence, I will fight like hell to remain this way, but also fight like hell to create my painting the way I see fit. It would be easy to sink back into what was or what others now project on me as to how I should be feeling or living. If you've learned anything about me from reading my blog thus far, I hope it's this....this is MY painting, my story. I will mess it up, make changes and keep recreating it until I have my masterpiece. Each day I will find some way to improve and make my life more beautiful and more fulfilling than the day before. It might look like a walk with my friend, a laugh with my children, a hug from my parents, singing from the top of my lungs at a karaoke bar, admiring the twinkling lights at the foot of the Eiffel Tower (hello, bucket list) or even getting my monthly life saving injection in that chemo chair....whatever it is, it is the art of my ability to compose the sweetest symphony or add just the right touch of shimmering gold to what will be the masterpiece of my life. I learned a great lesson when it was all almost taken from me so suddenly. That lesson is to never let this opportunity of living go to waste and not to sit in the backseat of this beautiful ride called life. Maybe it was the snow falling in that scene, perhaps it was these incredibly brave and accurate words that resonated with me in a way that I felt it to my very core.... I don't know, it just felt all too relatable and too real. I've been saying for years now that "cancer doesn't define me". I feel like this statement is kind of expected because none of us want something so raw, scary and horrible to be our legacy. I might, however, be changing my tune. Bear with me here, and seriously be prepared for me to take it back one day because, um, after all...it's MY masterpiece (wink). BUT, what if cancer does define me to some extent...without hearing those words "you have cancer", I wouldn't have stumbled upon my strengths. I wouldn't have so deeply uncovered this unwavering compassion for all beings. I see and feel this tremendous ability to empathize with others which is so severely lacking in our world today. I would never have exposed my many passions and tremendous drive to live with such joy and gratitude. I never wanted to be a "sob story." which is why I kept it all under wraps for as long as I felt it necessary to do so. Then I came to the realization that what I"m learning matters. What I do with this deck of cards I've been dealt..matters. Being vulnerable enough to share it with you and help others not feel like they are the only ones struggling....it matters. So today, in this moment, on this 3 years since you came into my life...Cancer, I'm letting you in on the narrative. You have defined my ability to overcome hard things. I am resilient in the truest meaning of that word. I have used you to my benefit. I am stronger, more sincere, more adventurous, wild and yet still. I am less afraid and yet broken in all the right ways. You might have made the cracks, but I am letting the light in and in charge of letting it shine out.
In that moment 3 years ago, on that cold tile floor in a puddle of my own tears crying out "I can't do this",
I fell down a dark hole. Hell, I was actually pushed. I have spent much of the last few years emerging from it. Today, I truly feel like I"m standing at the top and I've even had more days now where I'm soaring up above it! Still, there are days where I find myself slipping. A blood panel comes back weird or I look in the mirror and see all that was taken from me....It takes everything inside me to pull myself back up, out of the hole and to spread my wings so that I can once again sour amidst the clouds. In my darkest times, I have been able to find my truest, greatest strength...that strength is me.
The view in these clouds is so much nicer than that damn black hole. Without knowing how my story from here will go (my palm reader, however, did sayI have lots of time), I'm constantly thinking about my legacy or the one I'm really trying hard to create. In the movie, the young man uttered these words: "I'm not going down fighting, I'm going UP fighting...I won't lose." Spread those wings, baby. I too, plan on going up, up, up!
So what will YOU do with your one wild and precious life? You don't have to find out you are dying to start living. I hope this message is helping you all to see that you don't have to wait for the bottom to fall out from under you like I did, to dig deep and live your life the way you choose. Believe in your ability to seek the light and overcome what might seem unsurpassable. Let your rise from your challenge define who you are.To my fellow warriors...this really isn't fair. It just isn't. You do not deserve this. It's ok to wallow in that misery for as long as you need to, but please don't let cancer keep you there. You are more than this crappy diagnosis. Let your strength and gifts guide you through this. When you need to, take a step back, breathe and don't let cancer or anything stop you from adding to this masterpiece that is your life.
To my former self, my future self and anyone out there doubting themselves....you and I in fact CAN do this. 3 years, still here. Keep on Killing It. Much love-M
**To Dr. Jones, Dr. Reiland, Dr. Martin, Dr. Bryan, Dr. Hunt, Dr. Savioz, Melissa, Brenda. Lynne, Becky. Ashley, Mariah, Aly, Randy, Alyssa, Katie, Kody, Chad, Abby, the countless doctors/nurses from the ICU that I was too sick to remember by name, the ambulance drivers and SO many others at Avera McKennan......thank you isn't a big enough word. I'm still here because of you. You have changed my life and are all part of my masterpiece.**