Cancer forced me to face my mortality — and in doing so, I crafted a bucket list and embraced the true meaning of life.
“What did I do wrong?” I cried out.
My surgeon spoke in subdued tones, quoting statistics and survival rates, but I stopped listening. Fear drowned out his words. This can’t be happening to me! None of it seemed real. I was 40 years old and in the best shape of my life — yet my body still betrayed me.
The following weeks were a blur of tests, more biopsies and second opinions. At one point there were three doctors in the sterile-looking exam room — all delivering more bad news. I went from lumpectomy to double mastectomy within seconds. Laughter mingled with tears as I contemplated still more decisions.
Two weeks later, all the results were in, and I only had “half” as much cancer as they originally thought. I would just need a lumpectomy and radiation.
On the last day of treatment, which I know was a great relief to everyone on staff, I received the news I never wanted to hear — words about my survival rate.
I don’t remember walking out into the dimly lit hospital parking lot, how I drove home that evening, or how the dozen pink celebratory roses made it from the car to the kitchen table, but I faced my mortality for the first time.
To cheer me up, my husband flew me to California to visit my parents. And seven days later, in quiet desperation, my parents sent me back on a plane bound for Pennsylvania. When my husband picked me up at the Baltimore Washington Airport, his face was marred by shock and disbelief. I was in far worse shape than when he left me.
As we drove up the driveway to our home, I noticed the backyard had been perfectly landscaped. There were colorful flowerbeds where mounds of dirt had been. And in the center of the yard was a beautiful pink dogwood tree in full bloom. I pointed to the tree and asked, “What’s this?”
My husband gazed into my eyes and said, “This is our ‘tree of life.’ We’re starting a new chapter in our lives.” For the first time in weeks, I saw a glimmer of hope; it was brief, but it was there.
The next few weeks allowed me to build on that tiny glimmer, and one afternoon as I looked out at that pink dogwood tree in full bloom, I asked myself the question. What if I only had a year to live, what would I do differently? I randomly wrote down 27 things I wanted to do before I died. They included such things as taking a trip to Italy to visit friends, enrolling in a photography course, going on a cruise, writing a book and number 27: parachuting out of an airplane.
Mark picked up the list and read each one out loud. Afterward, he announced, “I’m going to help you accomplish every one of those goals and when that list is finished, we’ll write another one and another one…for the rest of your life.”
That was 27 years ago and today I’ve accomplished every one of those goals, except parachuting out of an airplane.
I’m thankful for cancer in many ways. Not that I want to relive the events of the past 27 years, but I can’t imagine my life without them. Cancer forced me to realize that life is fragile and that none of us is promised tomorrow. It allowed me to pursue the desires of my heart instead of working just for a paycheck. Cancer helped me to prioritize my life and not let opportunities pass me by.
On our 30th wedding anniversary, we celebrated with a cruise to the Bahamas and under moonlit skies, I said a silent prayer and thanked God for allowing me to experience life by facing my mortality.
Life has become a series of celebrations, big and small. But the greatest joy of all has been seeing my boys through safe passage into adulthood. They are both married with children of their own and are pursuing their passions which my experience with breast cancer taught them to do.
Now when I look in the mirror and see a “few” gray hairs covered with caramel highlights and wrinkles — I call them laugh lines — I smile back and say, “What did I do right to deserve a second chance at this gift called life?”
This post was written and submitted by a CURE reader. The article reflects the views the author and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.
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