A woman with metastatic breast cancer looks back on the happy memories she made this summer and how she uses them as strength in the face of cancer. “Sometimes, when we’re lucky, the scale tips toward the good,” she writes.
It’s the end of the summer as I write this and my usual marker of time, the beginning of the school year, is here again. This time, though, it’s into a completely new world for me. That’s because my youngest, the boy who was barely 12 when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, is going to start his first year of college in less than two weeks.
The scenes I remember from those early days of cancer are glimpses into a time where the main goal, the only goal, was just getting through each day despite a cascade of bad news from my doctors amid my own fear and bewilderment. Among those memories: The conversation with one of my neighbors when I stated that I needed to live long enough to know what kind of a person my sixth grader would be. I pictured him in a graduation robe, smiling and happy, a good person ready for anything.
Over the years, I’ve replayed that conversation with my neighbor many times. I’ve used it to illustrate my stubbornness, as well as the difficulty of being a parent-with-cancer of teens and pre-teens. Privately, I’ve returned to it when I need to find strength within myself.
I get asked about my mindset and resilience with absurd frequency, sometimes as though those are the reasons I am still here getting treatment and living my life (newsflash: science, drugs, my body’s out-of-my-control response are where the credit belongs). This question came up again just this week, during a moment when I was wondering about how college will be for my son, whose last year and a half of high school was entirely virtual. It made me think about how the only way I know to live with cancer is to accept every emotion I feel and to just keep on getting up every day for as long as I possibly can. Sometimes doing that is a huge ask, and because of that I’ve learned to seek out and mentally acknowledge all the good things.
There’ve been a lot of them this summer. My shortlist includes:
A cross-country train trip
Visiting my parents and sister after more than a year
College acceptance for my son
Re-starting college for one daughter
A job offer she loves for the other daughter
Helping my husband edit a book
In-person high school graduation for my son
Visiting family on the east coast
Daughters spending two weeks at home
Taking more risks than advisable
I’ll stop there, but just to be clear – I also find unreasonable joy and gratitude in walking my dog and growing tomatoes and looking at the moon through the four-foot-tall telescope my husband bought early in the pandemic.
Sometimes the strange new worlds we enter, like cancer or college, are overwhelming. Sometimes the hardships they force us to live through – fear, loss and growth, too – are balanced out by the accumulation of big and small moments of joy. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, the scale tips toward the good.
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