I will never forget that afternoon, standing with my cousins in the church parking lot. Dressed in our funeral best, we had just said a sad farewell to our cousin, Jeanne, only 49 years old, mother of two. She had fought an impressive fight, but finally laid her sword down and succumbed to the inevitable end of her time here on earth. We sat behind the truck with our cooler of honorary beer, (in line with any good Irish funeral) and reminisced about fun childhood experiences we shared, family reunions, our cousin’s laugh and her sparkling personality. We committed to a vow between the female cousins to be diligent with our mammograms and breast exams. It’s funny though, I remember my naïve, defiant attitude at that time still being “it will never happen to me“. But nonetheless, with the clink of our cans and drinks raised to the heavens, we agreed to the pact.
So back home and into my daily routine, I kept to my word and checked myself, just to fulfill my promise to my cousins. “Hmmm,” I thought, “that feels a little weird.” There was an area that felt thicker than the rest of the tissue. Not a lump, like you read about in the folded self breast exam pamphlets you get at the doctor’s office, but different just the same.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” assured my husband. “You’re just worried because everything is so fresh with your cousin. But go have it checked out.”
It was two weeks later, at the age of 47, that I received the news I thought “could never happen to me“. And my journey began.
It was a welcomed update to hear that, although I was positive for cancer on both sides, I was Stage 1 with no lymph nodes involved. “You caught it early, you are very lucky” was often repeated to me in order to calm my fears. Hearing that was comforting in a way, but there was a voice in the back of my head asking “Why did I catch it early? Why couldn’t Jeanne have been as lucky?” Those questioning thoughts were pushed aside as I began my battle. All of my focus turned to fighting and surviving. Through the chemo, radiation, physical therapy, I battled on.
I finished my radiation the following May and with completion of this final treatment it began to become more real that I beat this cancer, at least for now. I was a survivor – by my doctors’ definition, and I was very grateful. But the return of the guilt crept into my daily thoughts and extinguished any celebratory feeling I may been tempted to embrace.
It was at this time I lost my mother to cancer and at her service I was to come face to face again with my Aunt and Uncle who had to bury their daughter just two years prior. The anxiety I felt seeing them again is one I find hard to explain. I know they love me and would never wish anything but a full recovery for me, but I could not help but wonder – did they ask the same questions? Why did I catch it early? Why am I still here, standing on this earth and their daughter isn’t?
The guilt and the burden of making sure my gift of life is not taken for granted has softened with time. I spend less time asking why and focusing on how. How can I make the most of the time I have here with my family and friends? How can I make my existence more meaningful and honor the life God has given me?
I can tell you that if you are asking the question, “Why am I still here?”, its time for prayer. I ask God to guide me through this life, so that I am doing what he has intended for me. Whatever I am here for, tasks great or small, I pray that I can do what He expects from me.
So with this 50th birthday just weeks away, I will approach it with bittersweet gratitude and appreciation. I plan to celebrate the miracle of continued life God has given me with a humble recognition of all my fellow warriors who have completed their battles with success and those who have ended their battles with their journey to Heaven to watch over the rest of us.
I will never truly understand why I am able to celebrate this 50th year, when my sweet cousin never was able to. But it is not for me to reason why or question God’s plan. I will say that on June 1st I will be sending a special prayer of thanks to my Guardian angel, Jeanne Louise, and continue my best to Thrive Through Faith one day at a time.