Here’s the story I wrote for Syracuse Woman Magazine:
On May 8, 2009, my fight began as a mental battle, as I attempted to wrap my mind around the news that I had Stage III breast cancer. As a healthy 39-year-old wife and mother of three, this diagnosis came as a shock for my family, my doctors and me. Almost immediately, discussions began to revolve around the possibility that I may be carrying a breast cancer gene, making me more likely to develop aggressive breast cancer at such a young age.
The results confirmed what my doctors anticipated. I was carrying the BRCA2 gene for breast cancer. This impacted the treatment plan developed by my doctors, since having this gene increased the likelihood that I may develop other forms of cancer, mainly ovarian cancer.
In addition to a double mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation, it was also recommended that I have a full hysterectomy. Almost immediately, my body began to respond to the treatment I was receiving to save my life.
After my first round of chemotherapy, I developed a pulmonary embolism. This began months of treatment to make sure that this embolism didn’t do what the cancer was already trying to accomplish. In addition to this unexpected scare, I also dealt with debilitating sickness. As a young woman with a higher metabolism, the chemotherapy drugs went through my body quickly and made me even more ill than I ever imagined.
For my mother and sister, watching my treatment was made even more difficult by the fact that they, too, may be carrying the BRCA2 gene. Almost immediately, they began the process of testing to determine if we shared this medical makeup. The results were positive. Yes, my mother and sister were both carrying the gene that made me more susceptible to developing cancer.
Now, my fight became their fight as well. What could they do to battle against this possible threat to their own health and lives? For my mom (age 65) and sister (age 41), their decision was to have preventative mastectomies and hysterectomies. So, during the years of 2009 to 2010, we all entered into a journey we would never have imagined. The choice of my mother and sister may not be everyone’s path, but it was their way of fighting to live. I honor and admire their choice each and every day.
The path was made even more difficult, as my mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery and radiation to rid her body of her own cancer. I remember sitting in my parents’ home with my mom and sister. My head was bald, a gift from my chemotherapy. My mom was on the other side of her thyroid surgery and my sister was recovering from her mastectomy. As we sat together, we began to laugh.
Our laughter was our release for all that we had been through together. It was a validation that no matter what happens in our lives, we can still laugh. We can still find joy!
I share that message in my new book, “Joyful Journeys: Sacred Pauses with God” (published by Divine Phoenix in conjunction with Pegasus Books), that was released in January of this year. The book is a series of spiritual reflections written to inspire people to joy during the weight of struggle. The struggle doesn’t have to be cancer. For some, the battle is emotional or spiritual. For others, the weight of struggle revolves around financial or relationship concerns. No matter what the challenge, we all share an ability to find hope and possibility in our darkest days.
On May 8 of this year, I celebrated the sixth anniversary of my diagnosis. Yes, as a cancer survivor I celebrate the day I was diagnosed. I celebrate because each year beyond that diagnosis is a year I may not have had with my amazing husband and beautiful children. These are years that I may not have had with my parents or my sister. So, I celebrate each and every day that I am here.
I know that my treatment and life today was only made possible by many women and men who battled this disease before me. I honor all those who took part in medical studies to ensure that those of us, today, have the best possible chance for survival. My sister entered into a medical study herself to monitor those carrying the BRCA2 gene. She is continuing her part to help those in the future.
Some who will be a part of that future are our own children. It is not lost on us that our family’s fight may continue during the next generation. However, we hope that our example, our perseverance, our joy and our desire to live will empower our children to make the best decisions for their lives.
When my youngest asks me whether or not I will have cancer again, I answer her truthfully: “I don’t know. But, I am doing everything to fight against this and to live each and every day to the fullest.” For now, this seems to suffice her curiosity.
None of us know the fullness of the days ahead. However, living each day with compassion, hope, joy and faith give us the strength to handle that which we cannot see. This is my message to my own children and the children that are entrusted to my care as a teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse.
As I look at my mother and sister, today, I see women who have endured great challenges to ensure that we can still laugh together in the present. My dream for my book and for my life is that, with each word written and spoken, I can continue to educate and encourage others to fight for joy in their own lives.