Cancer is a despicable disease. You are forced to bear the utterly unbearable. And to do so, something must pull you through it. That little spark of inspiration is different for everyone — it can be something that instills hope, anger or even fear.
When I discovered my own breast cancer, I immediately felt condemned to the journey my mother had walked almost 30 years before. We were both 35 when we began showing signs of the disease. We both had two small children at the time. As far as I was concerned, history was repeating itself. Our lives were evolving as mirror images of one another’s but for the span of time.
Unlike my mother, I knew how this journey ended. After attempted survival through the hell that is cancer treatment, the disease can metastasize to your brain and lungs. Your small children watch you struggle and suffer until your body can’t fight anymore. Your husband tries to help you in anyway he can, except he can’t. And when you finally lose your battle, you may no longer be suffering, but those who loved you and lost you go on suffering, in some ways, forever.
Yes, there I was, living my childhood all over again, except this time, I was the mother. Please, dear God, please help me to stay with my children for as long as they need me. I knew her prayers. They are my prayers too.
As I started on my journey, I felt my mother’s presence. Slowly, I began to recognize differences in my path and hers; places where our stories diverged — stage of disease at diagnosis, available treatment options, a span of several decades. Those differences lit a small spark of hope within me that perhaps I was not condemned to her life, nor her death. Perhaps, I could live a life my mother had been denied and fight this disease in a way she never could. After all, our circumstances were different — I lived in an urban area with access to the cutting edge cancer research institutes; I was an economist with exceptional research skills who easily grasped statistics and outcomes; and I forged my way into being an advocate for myself with my own doctors, asking questions and demanding answers. Perhaps, I could change our destiny if even only a little bit.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
After my first year of treatment, I celebrated that milestone by leading a team of (super) women to walk 60 miles over three days raising funds for breast cancer research. On the afternoon of our second day — the longest day — the day we actually walked almost 25 miles, we were exhausted, sore and hot. We stopped at a medic tent to have the blistered feet of one of my teammates treated and wrapped in duck tape so she could continue walking. Earlier that morning, I had not received a daily devotional message — a little message of inspiration that I receive each morning by email like clockwork, except for that one day. At lunch, I checked my phone, wondering why I hadn’t received it yet. That afternoon at the medic tent, when I thought I couldn’t go much further and wondered what I had gotten my already tired and depleted body into, I turned on my phone to find my devotional staring at me. The subject line read:
“DAUGHTER, I SAY UNTO YOU ARISE.”
It told the story of a desperately sick little girl whose disease had rendered her incapable of walking. Through her strong faith, she rose to walk again.
At that moment, there was my mother, telling me to GET UP. Telling her sick little girl to STEP FORWARD. That day. Every day. I finished all 60 miles.
I often think of my mother and wonder what inspired her through her journey and her death. What was it that allowed her to step forward, ultimately bearing the knowledge that she would not be there as long as her little girls needed her?
That her prayer would go unanswered?
I do not know. I will never know.
But for me, my inspiration lies in my realization that I am not condemned — that my journey is not the mirror image of my mother’s. Bearing the unbearable has meant feeling, knowing and accepting the uncertainty that is life and death — for ultimately, that is everyone’s reality. I have learned that it takes far greater energy for me to push away my fears and my failures than it does to simply accept them. This has freed me in many ways to move forward, defining my own story.
And, while the steps that you can see on this journey are mine, those you can’t see belong to my mother.