WHEN I THINK OF THE 4TH OF JULY, I think of a celebration of America’s freedom and independence: fireworks, picnics, and time with family. However, one year it wasn’t a celebration for my family, but rather, a day we will never forget.
For six months, I had been seeing a chiropractor because of back pain and a heavy feeling in my chest, but the symptoms wouldn’t go away. I eventually got a second opinion and that physician ordered tests. In the days leading up to the 4th, the results started coming back. I was told my back pain was suspected Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
My boys were at my parents’ house up in Northern Wisconsin—where we spent every 4th of July—and my husband, Fred, was out of town, so my sister and two of my best friends basically dropped everything to stay with me. I don’t think I would have made it through that weekend without their love and support.
My sister and I called our parents to tell them that I would need to see an oncologist that Monday. I just wanted to be honest with them, but they suspected the worst, as we all did. My mom wanted to come back to go to the appointment with me, but my dad thought it’d be best if Fred and I went alone. The two of us went to the oncologist that Monday and the doctor confirmed my diagnosis. Fred and I were so shocked, we drove home from that appointment in silence. This was my first cancer diagnosis, and I had no idea how this had happened. By the time we got home, my parents and the boys were there, waiting for us. My mom told me that all I kept saying in my bedroom was that “I don’t want to die, I’m not ready to die.” She said she will NEVER forget that moment. Instead of celebrating the holiday, my parents, husband, and I tried to figure out the best way to tell our then 9- and 13-year-old boys about my diagnosis.
My boys already suspected something was wrong with my health. They saw my parents crying when I originally called them and whenever I received a call from the hospital or doctor, I left the room as I knew I would start crying. My sons started to ask questions, so by that Tuesday, we decided to sit them down and tell them what was wrong. My husband had a treatable lymphoma a few years prior, so our sons had been exposed to cancer; they have seen how it can affect a family—our family. I didn’t want to hide anything. I began telling them I had breast cancer; I also told them I planned to fight the cancer and explained that it was a different type than what their dad faced.
My youngest started crying right away and asked if I was going to die. My older one didn’t say much, but I could see the fear in his eyes. We told them that I would always be on treatments for my cancer and that I needed the support of the entire family. Once all the tears were shed, we just held each other.
Having open conversations has made our family stronger. It has brought us closer together.”
We spent the weekend taking our mind off things by going up to Northern Wisconsin like we’d planned and celebrating the 4th as best we could. But by Sunday, the news of my diagnosis was sinking in; I asked the boys if they had any questions. I told them I would answer whatever questions I could and that no question was stupid. I received questions like:
- Will you have to live in the hospital?
- How long did you know you had cancer?
- Can you still drive to soccer practice/games?
- Will you lose your hair?
- Will you lose your breasts?
- Can you still work so we have money, or will we lose the house?
- If and when will you die?
- Can you recover from this cancer?
The list went on and on. My husband and I answered the questions we had the answers to, but I did take some of the questions (like whether the boys could see me get radiation) to the oncologist to get his responses, which we then shared with the boys. It took several months for all of us to understand what we were dealing with.
It helped, not only having family, but also friends to support us. Shortly after I was diagnosed, a close friend named Jen, who is a family physician, came over and tried to help me understand the diagnosis. She answered some of the questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking my oncologist. My biggest question was whether I had breast cancer or bone cancer, because my oncologist kept referring to the cancer in my bones. She explained what “metastatic” meant, that the breast cancer had spread, and helped me understand my treatment options better.
She also wrote down three things I should do:
- Always take someone with me to appointments
- Make sure I went to every appointment with my questions written down
- Never be afraid to get a second opinion
Her advice was so important to me and it was important to my other friends. Jen actually met with my other close friends to explain my condition and to tell them that, as much as they wanted to help, I needed space to be with my family. This meeting cut down on the number of confused, worried calls we received those first few months. I was grateful for that.
Spending time with my loved ones is something I hold even closer now. I was very fortunate to have many people in my life, and the support and love of my family and friends is what keeps me going. Having open conversations has made our family stronger. It has brought us closer together; and my husband, our boys, and I are living every day to the fullest.