I was in a meeting when I saw my iPhone light up with a message. Midway through whatever I was saying, I glanced quickly to read the text out of the corner of my eye.
"Mammogram came back suspicious. Have to go back next week. Love you," said Mom via that text. It was her birthday.
My heart sank. And I felt all the oxygen get sucked out of my lungs. I don't remember finishing whatever sentence I was midway through. All I remember thinking was -- I don't know how to change a diaper; I don't know how to make her spaghetti sauce; I don't remember certain stories about my grandparents, her parents. These were things Mom was going to teach me, tell me, show me -- all in good time. Suddenly, that time felt like the air in my lungs -- gone.
We don't have a history of breast cancer in our family. Mom had regular mammograms since the age it was recommended. And she hadn't even been diagnosed with anything yet. And, yet despite all those signs that this might be nothing, I couldn't get out of my head the thought that I was going to lose Mom before I got married, before I had kids, before so much.
Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
I got that message and went right to the nearest bathroom. I locked the stall door behind me. I felt sick. I cried ugly and hard, covering my mouth with my hand so no one would hear me. My deepest fears were unfolding. This was real.
Later that day, I drove out to my parents' house. After a lot more tears, Mom turned to me in the Adirondack chair on the back porch and said, "Whatever this is, we have to be aggressive and available." I nodded, thinking how much I liked that expression. I kept up a strong, normal front on the outside. I shut down completely inside.
In the time that elapsed between her diagnosis and solidifying her treatment plan, I cried every day, sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes for absolutely no reason, almost everywhere. More bathroom stalls. The parked car in a dark garage. The shower. Sitting at home on a Friday night. I went to bed at 5 p.m. I went to bed at 1 a.m. I stopped praying. I let things slip. I told everyone things were fine -- and they weren't. My boob would brush up against something and I thought I felt a lump. I'd work out and run farther than I'd ever run. And then I'd miss workouts for weeks. I didn't know how to cope. So I shut down.
We were out to dinner for my 31st birthday, and I asked Mom if it would be okay if I wrote about all this. I wasn't going to write about this or her or our family if she wasn't okay with it. "I trust you to tell this story," she said. I was sure that that blessing from her was what I needed to lift my shut down.
I didn't do anything about it. I opened a blank Word document and wrote a sentence or two. And then I shut it down. I would tell myself that I was tired. I had a headache. I had other things to do. I had my period. I gave myself every possible way out.
After a couple months of living shut down, I realized that I just couldn't do that anymore. Because shutting down wasn't real. And it certainly wasn't aggressive or available. My biggest fan, my mom, is fighting to save her life. And I'm still crying in the bathroom. Enough.
I went back to yoga. I started reading Kris Carr. I got real clear about who was on my team. I started meeting women who are three, five, 10 years into remission from breast cancer. And I started meeting women who, like my mom, are fighting it right now -- with boldness, courage and faith that put my sorry ass to shame. Then, someone told me I needed to let him in because he wanted to be there for me -- and, for the first time ever, I said yes.
Since her diagnosis, Mom's had approximately 50 hours of appointments, a lumpectomy and targeted radiation therapy via a Mammosite procedure. What's ahead is that which we fear -- 16 weeks of chemotherapy which will, ironically, start in October -- breast-cancer awareness month. I write that and take a big, deep, breath for not only my mom, but also the millions of women and men who have and will do what needs to be done to save their lives. If I've learned anything about all this it's the strength and perseverance it takes to make that choice.
I started writing this for three big reasons. First, as a way to scoop myself out of the slough that has been this searing, uncomfortable summer and, as Joan Didion says, "To find out what I think." Then, I knew -- deep down -- that I wanted to tell a story about being human that's not always fun or pretty or charming or normal. But, real. Totally real.
Lastly, I did it in hopes it might be valuable to someone else. I stopped thinking about myself long enough to consider that perhaps someone else is in this ugly slough. Because for every woman who has breast cancer, there are husbands, partners, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, families, friends, coworkers who are struggling, too. I did. I am. I will. Sometimes I want to sign up to be at every fundraiser. Other times, I want to rip down every poster I see for breast-cancer awareness month because I'm angry. And I'm worse than angry -- I'm scared.
I don't know where all of this is going. I have no idea the outcome. I will keep writing about this right here. And I will say to that someone who got a text or a call today and went to the bathroom and cried alone -- I get it. And when you're ready, you will realize you must be aggressive and available. And you'll know you're not alone in digging really deep to muster up that courage.