The Words That Changed My Life: You Have Breast Cancer


We are never prepared to hear the words, "You have cancer."

Every year as the end of summer approaches, I am transported back to August 1986, when my baby girl, Kirtley, began walking during a special vacation my husband and I took to the coast of South Carolina. My husband’s parents were overseeing an estate that had a mile of private beach. We walked the water line, picking up shells that made Kirtley squeal with delight when I put them to her ear. Our evening meal would be fresh vegetables from the garden, and my father-in-law would hold Kirtley on his lap until she fell asleep to dream of the next day and doing it all again.

Then, during one walk, I began to experience a deep, painful itching in my right breast, and I added it to the list of questions for my upcoming one year wellness visit to the doctor who delivered Kirtley. At one point, I thought I would jokingly tell her I had breast cancer, since my research said cancer has no feeling, so I knew it wasn’t. Note: breast cancer usually doesn’t have feeling but in reality, if it has a symptom, it’s deep painful itching.

Shortly after we got back to Dallas, Kirtley and I went to the doctor. Kirtley got a wonderful passing grade, and I got a referral for a mammogram to check out the lump the doctor found at the location of the itching, to confirm what the doctor saw as nothing to worry about. I scheduled it for the next day. The call came late Friday. I was in the kitchen watching Kirtley make her way around the dinner table, going from chair to chair with that expression that says, “Watch me mom! Don’t look away! I am going to let go and walk.”

On the phone, my doctor said, “Your mammogram came back highly suspicious.” “What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means you probably have breast cancer.”

The words changed my life and took me into myself and out again. They showed me what love looks like and what my head looks like without hair.

The words helped me understand commitment and courage on the part of women from across the country. The words introduced me to how to live in the moment and not the future, which is not guaranteed.

I met all kinds of women, some of whom were amazing, with a zest for living that was remarkable.

I sat at the death beds of women who taught me what it meant to live and to die, one of whom was my mother.

I remember the women whose deaths showed me that a resolved healthy death was possible. The people showed me what hope, courage and faith really mean and their power when applied.

The researchers fought for us in dark labs around the world to unlock the mysteries of why cancer cells grow.

In the past 30 years, I have come to know what commitment means, and I have come to understand how seeking purpose in life helps us all find a joy very unlike any other.

Breast cancer changed my life for the better. It took my life and shook it up and challenged me to decide whether I was going to stand on the side lines and watch or get involved.

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