I was 39 weeks pregnant when I was diagnosed with breast cancer last October.
I’m not sure what (or who) exactly caused me to ask my nurse-practitioner to do a breast exam at my OB-GYN appointment. At the time it felt like part of that final nesting surge of wanting everything to be crossed off my list. It had occurred to me that I’d be breastfeeding for some time after having my new baby, my third, and so it might be a good idea to get checked out before all of the body changes that would entail.
Lots of people have asked me since then: Did you feel anything? And the answer is no. I didn’t feel anything. I 100% expected her to tell me everything was perfect, and I could check that one thing off my list. On to the next.
But of course that’s not what happened. She discovered a lump. Not a huge lump, but one big enough that when she pointed it out to me, I could feel it too.
She scheduled me for an ultrasound, which led to a biopsy, which led to a life-changing phone call from the OB-GYN, a call that was quite upsetting for both of us.
Invasive ductal carcinoma, Grade 2. I didn’t even know what those words meant. I just knew they were bad.
I sat on the edge of my bed and sobbed, my mom (who’d come into town in anticipation of the birth) next to me, rubbing my back.
Cancer. It seemed like the worst news I could have received. And the worst timing. I was supposed to be preparing for childbirth. My worries were supposed to be about sleep deprivation and baby weight and how my two older sons would greet their baby sister.
Instead, there I was making an emergency appointment with a cancer surgeon and scheduling my first-ever mammogram, which brought to mind that old phrase about locking the barn door after the horses were gone.
And then, because I’m a mom and that’s what we do, I had to pull it together and take my son to soccer practice, pretending like I hadn’t just been sucker punched. At the field I dropped my hugely pregnant body into my folding chair and sat stunned, my eyes continually blurring with tears behind my sunglasses as the boys warmed up.
Did this mean Ben was going to grow up without a mother? Did this mean that next year I wouldn’t even be here to watch him practice? And what about his little brother and this baby who hadn’t even been born yet? I started hyperventilating and had to take deep breaths to calm down. The other parents probably thought I was practicing Lamaze breathing.
How do people do it? I wondered. How do you keep going when you’re dealing with news like this?
And then something strange happened. It was as if my brain had been so heavily in panic mode it just couldn’t function there any longer.
My breathing slowed down and I noticed it was a gorgeous day, that I was the perfect temperature sitting there in the ocean breeze wrapped in my soccer mom blanket, and I could admire the sun-dappled leaves on a nearby tree. I was shocked to discover I could enjoy this very moment. That this moment I could handle. This moment I had and not even cancer could take it away.
This is how you get through it, I realized. Each moment by itself, one breath at a time.
We found out a lot more information in the days and weeks ahead, much of it good. My cancer was on the small side, enough to make me Stage 1; they thought it had not invaded past the original mass; it was a less aggressive type. Despite the many struggles and minor heartbreaks to follow—that I would have to go straight to the cancer surgeon’s office when we left the hospital with my newborn baby girl, that I would have to give up breastfeeding at six weeks in order to have surgery followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapy—I realized that it was not the worst possible thing nor was it the worst possible time.
In fact, my cancer diagnosis was kind of a miracle.
Why in the world had I asked for a breast exam? I still don’t know. But I do know that if I hadn’t, as my pediatrician pointed out shortly after my daughter Kate’s birth, that the cancer would likely not have been caught for years, perhaps even three, since I’d breastfed both my boys for more than two years and would have probably done the same with her and then written off any lumpiness as just still-swollen milk ducts.
If I’d found it early in the pregnancy, I would have had to face very difficult decisions about whether to treat it or not. And if I’d somehow found it before the pregnancy, I probably wouldn’t have my baby girl at all.
It seems entirely possible that, in fact, I discovered the cancer at the best possible time.
The Bible verse that keeps coming to mind for me during this time is Romans 8:28a. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” As my pastor explains this verse, it doesn’t mean that everything is good or that it happens the way we expect it to, but that everything works together for good eventually. As I reflect on this verse, I find myself increasingly aware of how this situation too is working for good even now.
Knowing that I have cancer has infused my life with a radical sense of gratitude. Gratitude for my healthy baby girl and the rest of my family, for their good health and for my relative good health, gratitude for each moment I have with them and gratitude that the doctors believe I’ll have many, many more.
At night before I fall asleep I like to listen for the distinctive breathing of everyone in the family. At four months old, the baby sleeping next to me in the cosleeper still has rapid and somewhat erratic breathing, “Huh huh huh huh.” Sometimes she laughs in her sleep. The 12-year-old dachshund in her bed by the window snuffles and wheezes. My husband’s sleeping breathing is enviably deep and even, like someone in a mattress commercial. If I listen carefully, I can hear both boys breathing and, this time of year, occasionally coughing, in their bedroom just down the hall.
I am often the last one to fall asleep. Right now that’s sometimes because of one side effect or other of the chemotherapy treatments I am halfway through, but listening to my sleeping family never fails to calm and soothe me. In these moments I realize that the song of my soul is still one of gratitude. After I fall asleep, if anyone listened to me, I’d like to think that the sound of my breaths is, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.