Guest post by Jennifer Lilley Collins: LifeConfetti.
Do you ever think back to a time in your life and wonder how you got through it?
I remember the day the doctor told me I had cancer, the day my world stopped. I remember my first chemo treatment, sitting in that recliner, watching poison pump into my veins. I remember the feel and the sound of those clippers on my head, shaving off the hair that was coming out in clumps. I remember my double mastectomy, being in so much pain, drains sprouting out of me, mutilated and feeling not quite whole. I remember the sound of that radiation machine, killing rogue cancer cells and searing flesh. I remember all of it.
I wonder how I got through those moments. But I did.
I endured chemo treatments, a double mastectomy, painful reconstruction, and radiation, along with all the other physical and emotional effects of cancer. I made it through those moments.
But it was over … until it wasn’t.
I remember when the doctor called to tell me that they found something on my routine scans and he scheduled a bone biopsy to determine what it was. I remember sitting in his office, hearing that what they found was cancer. I remember crying and then looking at my husband, and he was crying too. I remember sitting on the porch with my husband that night, both of us still numb. Still processing. Grappling with the fact that my stage II breast cancer metastasized to my bones and lungs and I was now diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. My prognosis was about 3 years, if treatment worked.
I wonder how I got through that moment. But I did.
These days, life is sort of normal, sort of not. Since then, so much has changed. I gave up the child care centers I owned and operated. I used to spend time and energy on my career, away from my family; all for businesses that don’t even exist anymore. I used to spend time planning curriculum and training teachers, now I spend my time with my family and my friends. I used to spend my free time, scrubbing floors and doing laundry; because that the only time I could fit it in. Now, I spend my free time writing and reading and baking.
I let the little stuff go, and what was ‘little stuff’, redefined. I stopped worrying about what other people thought. I stopped trying to prove myself to others (and to myself). I didn’t sign up for every committee and attend every event. I got rid of things I didn’t need, or want. Clearing the clutter in my house was an extension of the clearing out in my life.
No longer is my calendar filled with parent tours, trainings, and deadlines. Now, my calendar is filled with the kid’s social events, birthdays and anniversaries, and doctor appointments. I have reminders to refill the prescriptions I take every day – those meds that keep me alive, but make me feel like I am already dead sometimes. I see my oncologist every month. I have bloodwork, an office visit, and an injection. I appreciate that I can still drive myself to these appointments, unlike many of the patients sitting in the waiting room with me; but, with every visit, I see a glimpse of what my future may look like. Every three months, I have scans to make sure my cancer is still stable. Every three months, my world stops. I endure the scans and screenings and tests. I hear the same sounds, see the same sights, feel the same feelings.
Then, I wait.
I wait to find out if life is going to stay the same, or if life is going to change. Again. I wait to find out if my cancer is still just hanging out, not causing any trouble; or if my cancer is eating away at bones or flesh. I wait to find out if I will go to sleep, praising the Lord, knowing that my treatment is still working; or if I will go to sleep, praising the Lord, hoping that another treatment is available. I will wait to find out if I can carry on this beautiful, yet messy, life with my family; or if I have to sit down and have “that conversation” with my children, the one I have rehearsed in my mind a thousand times, but still don’t know the words.
No in between.
Joyous, or Devastating.
Even with this life lived in 3 month segments, I enjoy the everyday moments and events more than ever before. I love to prepare for weekday dinners with my family and weekend gatherings with my friends. I love to celebrate my children’s first days and last days, birthdays and holidays. I learned to be more in the moment, instead of rushing through one thing to get to the next. I enjoy those events down to the very last drop; but still, I have to silence the voice that reminds “this could be the last” birthday, first day of school, Christmas, or any other momentous occasion.
I am constantly battling the “what ifs”; however, I am getting better at focusing on “what is”.
I see things I was too busy to notice before. I am captivated by the sunset, and will drive all over to get the best view before the sky falls dark. I notice the first flower of spring and the first turning leaf of fall. I enjoy “blue sky and puffy white cloud” days as much as rainy ones. I delight in the sight, smell, and taste of my Mum’s apricot cookies, like never before.
I see that wonderful things are happening all around me. Wonderful things have happened all around me all along. I just never paid attention.
I pay attention now.
My hourglass may no longer be top-heavy, but I will enjoy what is left more than I enjoyed what has been. I feel like my life began when I found out that it is was ending. My soul is more alive as my body is dying. My life has changed for the better, even after I was dealt a devastating blow. Life is not a quest to obtain a new goal, a race to get to the next endeavor, or an assignment to fill up every white space on your calendar.
Life happens in the white spaces.
I am nearing the 3 year anniversary of my stage IV diagnosis. In those 3 years I have celebrated birthdays and holidays, spent precious time with family and friends, and started a new journey that includes writing and baking and reading; and all things that I never had time to do. In the last 3 years, I have laughed more, loved more, and lived more than in the years before I got sick. I have to fit in pesky doctor’s appointments and scans and bloodwork. I have to clean the house and wash the laundry; but I look at all those things a little differently now.
I don’t have to do those things, I get to do those things.
When I remember those moments, especially the hard ones, and wonder how I got through them; I realize they were part of the road I am traveling. If I listened to those doctors, the ones who said I had about 3 years left; I should be able to see that dead end just ahead.
But here I am, my treatment is still working.
My cancer cells are still just hanging out inside me without a home.
And the road is stretched out before me.
I don’t know what my future holds or how much longer I have to walk this earth; but I know now that it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to wonder how I got through those tough moments. I just know I did. I am more alive today than I was back then. Whether I have years, or months, or even weeks; I can look back with no regrets. I know that I am the person I was meant to be.
I know that even with a death sentence, I didn’t just exist; I lived.
Check out more of Jennifer Lilley Collins’ writing at LifeConfetti.