What I’ve Learned from My Cancer Diagnosis

 

 

 

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.

Copyright 2015 @ Images by Giselle

Copyright 2015 @ Images by Giselle

 

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.

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47 Responses to What I’ve Learned from My Cancer Diagnosis

  1. Tonya Generally March 1, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    My friend thank you for sharing this with us. I have been putting off my 40 yr mammogram and you have reminded me that we need to take time to keep on track of our health. Praying for you and your precious family.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

      I’m so glad to hear that, Tonya! I hoped that my post would inspire people to get checked out. I’m sure everything is perfect with you, but it’s good to know. Thank you for the prayers!

  2. Megan Gustitus March 1, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    Thank you for sharing this, Julie!
    I believe your story is beneficial for so many of us to hear. Please let us know how we can help you. Most importantly, surround yourself in the love of all those people who need you as much as you need them.
    Love you and your whole family!

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      Thanks, Megan! Love your perspective. Hope you all are doing well!

  3. barbara March 1, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    i had no idea. and this is SO magnificently powerful. i am sending up a hundred thousand prayers. bless you. times a million.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

      Thank you so much!

  4. Heather March 1, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    This is soooo beautiful. And I am so glad you shared it! This is a perfect reminder that in these moments in life we have to hold on to our sense of love and appreciation. Beautifully written and so full of wisdom. Thank you.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

      I’m so glad you had that takeaway. That’s what I was hoping. It was a hard post to write and then to share, and so it’s so wonderful to hear that it was helpful to people. Thank you!

  5. Becky March 1, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    Julia, this amazingly positive news from your doctors! It makes me so happy. Such wise words from an already wise woman…I admire your bravey and candor here.

    Praying for you and your continued strength (and joy!) this spring.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

      Yes, you’re right! It is such good news from them, and I am filled with hope. Thank you so much for reading and for your prayers!

  6. Michelle March 1, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    I am so touched to hear all of this, what a beautiful perspective you have. It was so great to catch up with you the other day, very late but maybe perfect timing?

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks, Michelle!

  7. Sarah Reddeg March 1, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Julia,

    This was beautifully written, and I am so thankful you shared it with us. Your faith and strength are admirable. Prayers for continued healing.

    Sarah

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

      Sarah, thank you!

  8. Wendy Lawton March 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    What a faith story, Julia. And when I look at that photo I can see the precious gift God has given as well as the challenges. There’s a whole group praying for you.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

      Wendy, thank you so much. I love this picture too. And thank you so much for enlisting those prayers!

  9. Ann H Gabhart March 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    So glad to hear your cancer was not advanced and the prognosis is excellent. Your baby is beautiful and the picture is precious. I’m way older than you, but I had a similar cancer diagnosis shortly after my mother died after three years of constant care due to her dementia. My sister and I shared much of the time staying with her and I put off my mammogram for those three years even though I’d faithfully had them every year previously due to my mother having breast cancer. I too was thankful to hear my tumor was Stage 1 when it could have been growing for several years. One in eight women have breast cancer. Many of them make a full recovery. That’s what I’m expecting for me and for you too. You, Julia, have many more years of being a loving mom. Your story was beautifully written.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

      Ann, I’m so glad that you posted. It’s wonderful to hear other survivors’ stories. I’m so glad you were in Stage 1 too, and I hadn’t heard that 1 in 8 statistic before. Sobering. Yes, I too have an expectation of recovery, even a cure through this treatment! I will pray for the same for you. Thank you again for sharing your story here.

  10. Nancy Wilson March 1, 2016 at 5:50 pm #

    You are a courageous mother. As mothers, you are correct, we try to keep “it together” whatever “it” is and go on with what our family needs. I am so happy that you are managing so well and so positive in your approach.

    I will think of you often . You are an inspiration to everyone who reads this, but the greatest gift is to your children, especially your daughter. You have set the standard for how to deal with adversity and fear. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Your mom and dad were always such great people and I know they are tremendously proud of how you are handling this . God bless you (I think he already has).

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

      Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response! I’m so glad you could relate to my perspective. God bless you!

  11. Nate McHenry March 1, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Incredible. Thanks for the grace and beauty in which you’ve shared your journey. I’m praying for complete healing. Grace and peace to you.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

      Nate, thank you so much for your prayers and for your kind words. So good to hear from you. Many blessings to you and your beautiful family.

  12. Lori Wildenberg March 2, 2016 at 5:29 am #

    Julia, I’m so glad you shared your story. The 1C13P (www.1Corinthians13Parenting.com) team is praying for you. We love you!!! (I love you) ~Lori

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

      I’m so glad to be a part of your community, Lori. Thank you!

  13. Leigh Ann (Davis) March 2, 2016 at 10:38 am #

    You are courageous and beautiful! Congratulations on your precious baby girl! Thank you for sharing your story. I love your focus on your gratitude for life and love for your family . My thoughts are prayers are with you.

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

      Thank you, Leigh Ann. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I really hesitated to share all of this so positive reactions like yours are just great to read. Thank you again for that and for your prayers!

  14. Lynn Greer March 2, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    Julia, I was devastated to hear the news that you have cancer, but grateful to God that the timing was perfect. My family will be sending up lots of prayers for you and your beautiful family! Let me know if we can help you in any way. Don’t hesitate to call if some afternoon you need help with the boys, or your baby daughter. My phone is 619-208-9234 and I only work in the mornings, so I would be happy to help if you need me. Love to you all, Lynn Greer

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

      You’re so kind! Thank you so much. My mom has been here and been the greatest help to me, but I will definitely get in touch if we need to. Thank you again!

  15. Bobbie Rhodes March 2, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

    I cried the whole time I was reading this. I pray all will be well with you. Thank God you had things checked out when you did. (Maybe that was intuition that made you think to do it.) Bless you & your family, you are one strong woman! My niece Angela shared your storey with me. ( My sister was your flute teacher )

    • juliaroller March 2, 2016 at 5:42 pm #

      Thank you so much for writing. I miss Debbie; she was my friend as well as my teacher. God bless you!

  16. kika March 2, 2016 at 6:49 pm #

    Julia you have such a beautiful soul , I can’t measure in words my respect for you …. Only someone with a amazing hart like you can understand Gods love and I know he is always watching over you and your family ?
    I’m so thankful to known you… So tankful to be able to learn from you❤️
    Love kika

    • juliaroller March 9, 2016 at 11:12 am #

      Kika, what sweet words. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!

  17. Michele Reynolds March 4, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

    Wow, thank you for sharing that. Romans 8:28- that helped me survive a life crisis too. Trust and don’t be afraid. You are in my prayers.

    • juliaroller March 9, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      Thank you so much, Michele. I know, that verse is a beautiful one. Thank you especially for your prayers.

  18. Erin Shetter March 8, 2016 at 9:26 am #

    Julia. You are incredibly strong. Your inward and outward beauty radiates. God has his hand on you. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • juliaroller March 9, 2016 at 11:15 am #

      Thank you, Erin. I love that image of God’s hand. Blessings to you.

  19. Susie Dhus March 8, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

    And here I thought I’d just missed getting to meet your sweet daughter, but so much more! What a great reminder that as we live our lives, the lives of those around us go on, too. Sending to you prayers of healing and peace, and to your family patience and gratitude .

    • juliaroller March 9, 2016 at 11:16 am #

      Susie, so wonderful to hear from you. Thank you so much for the prayers. We are doing really well, I believe. So grateful for all the support.

  20. Laura March 9, 2016 at 5:19 am #

    Hi Julia,

    I was in your workshop at the Festival of Faith and Writing two years ago and was just thinking about you the other day. This morning I was led (via Twitter) back to your blog and was very sorry to hear of your cancer diagnosis. I will be praying for you.

    Congratulations on your beautiful daughter!

    • juliaroller March 9, 2016 at 11:17 am #

      Laura, so great to hear from you! Are you going to FFW this year? Thank you so much for your prayers. And, yes, Kate is a tremendous blessing. 🙂

  21. Melissa March 9, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    Oh Julia, your grace, wisdom, and love for the Lord rings through. I can only pray that if faced with a similar situation my faith would be evident everyone around me and I would find joy in the midst of the storm. Thank you for sharing and I’m praying for you!

  22. Laura March 9, 2016 at 11:41 pm #

    Hi Julia. I just recently found your blogs site and read this post today. I’m so sorry to read of your cancer …but what a blessing to others and a light for the Lord you can continue to be in the midst of this. The things you expressed were so uplifting and also seem so familiar. I am also a believer, a mother to boys, and was diagnosed with cancer. … Breast cancer at my very first mammogram and then uterine cancer two years later. I had similar thoughts…. would my sons have to grow up without a mother? Would I be there next year for birthdays, Christmas, etc? But like you said, I was so grateful and began to appreciate things so much more. Romans 8:38 brought me comfort too. I knew I loved the Lord and I knew no matter how He answered our prayers He would be in control. I knew He had the power to heal me and he would either do that or give me the strength to face whatever I might need to face. Looking back, I see how much peace came just when I needed it most. I have a blog post on my diagnosis and will include a link at the bottom if you’d like to see it. I admire your faith and positive outlook and am praying for you. Blessings!! http://lifewithlaura2.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2013-01-01T00:00:00-06:00&updated-max=2014-01-01T00:00:00-06:00&max-results=2.

    • Julia roller June 3, 2016 at 8:21 pm #

      Thank you so much for sharing! I’m heading over to read your blog post right now.

  23. Nathan Foster May 10, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

    Very touching. So glad you have been able to find goodness in all of this. My heart dropped when I read the tittle to your essay.

    • Nathan Foster May 10, 2016 at 6:30 pm #

      I am so sorry for that horrible typo. I just got back from an exhausting trip and I’m not a good speller in general. Unfortunately this website format will not allow editing of comments. I can only hope that my embarrassment gives a good laugh. Sending prayers your way.

      • Julia roller June 3, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

        Hi Nathan! So good to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to write YOU and congratulate you on your new position! Thank you so much for your kind thoughts and yes, that is exactly the right reaction to a typo! I didn’t even notice it the first time through! Hope you and your family are well.

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