I wanted to put together a series of posts from other Young Survivors throughout the US and Canada. I don’t know these women personally but I’ve walked similar paths as they have, however, every persons cancer journey is individual which is why I found it so important to share other journeys and perspectives. I hope you show these ladies the same support and love you’ve shown me during my journey. XOXO – Danielle
Isn’t it funny when someone asks you to share your story it makes you take pause? At least it does for me. I get so used to the daily ins and outs that sometimes it’s easy to forget about the big picture. But then someone asks a question, or in this case asks me to write a blog post, and suddenly you stop and think about your story and take stock of what your life looks like in this moment. And in this moment, my life looks nothing like what I thought it would. 2 years ago I was married, starting and falling in love with a respiratory therapy program, and living in North Carolina. I had many titles that I wore and defined myself by: wife, student, respiratory therapist, the girl with pretty awesome long blonde hair (superficial, but true), homeowner, dog mom, lover and follower of Christ, just to name a few.
There will come a moment in your life and suddenly everything in your life will be in two categories: before and after. It could be having a child, divorce, death, or in my case the diagnosis. And when that moment comes the world will stop for a moment – at least mine did. I noticed that as people go through their own personal journey’s a lot of times the focus is on what they’ve become, but when I stop and look at my journey it’s the opposite. My journey and my story is about how everything I thought defined my life fell away until I was only left with what truly mattered – the unbecoming.
I’ve always found a good place to start is at the beginning, and I’ve already mentioned that my life was blissfully normal and unremarkable. In July of 2016 I noticed a small lump in my right breast, but because I was only 25 and had no history of cancer in my family I just assumed it was a calcium buildup because I’d had those before. In September I went to the doctor for a sinus infection and happened to mention the lump in my right breast. They assured me that it was nothing but sent me for an ultrasound to be sure. I went for an ultrasound two weeks later was told that it was 99% conclusive that it was absolutely nothing – just a benign growth – and that I could come back in a year for a follow-up. But something never sat right with me, or with my family who continually urged me to ask for a biopsy. I had to go to the doctor 3 more times asking for a biopsy just to put my mind at ease but they told me that it wasn’t indicated and there was no reason based on the ultrasound and my age/history. However, I persisted, and I think they just got tired of me, so they sent me to a general surgeon who would have the final say on doing a biopsy.
When I was laying on the examination table while the surgeon performed an exam I was watching his face, and I knew that something was wrong. The mass had gone from under 2cm to well over 5cm and he knew that simply from a breast exam. He told me that based on the feel of the mass and the ultrasound he still believed it was benign but he was going to remove it because it was growing and it could do damage to the surrounding tissue. So we set a surgery date for January 4, 2017. An excisional biopsy, or lumpectomy depending on who you talk to, was performed and afterward he came out and told my mom that he had completely removed the mass and was 100% sure that it was noncancerous. 2 weeks later I went and got a haircut, had lunch at Panera with my friends, and then went to my follow-up appointment so he would look at the incision and release me to return to clinical – but that’s not what happened. While I sat on the examination table drinking my lemonade and swinging my feet I was blissfully unaware that my life was going to change forever.
I remember that the doctor opened the door and before he could even get into the room he just said, “It’s cancer.” And while I’m certain he didn’t yell I promise you I felt like it reverberated off the walls. I started laughing because I just assumed he was joking – I mean I had been told a hundred different ways to Sunday that it was nothing to worry about. I kept telling him that this wasn’t funny and to stop, but finally I looked up at him and realized that this definitely wasn’t a joke. The look in his eyes, the heartbreak and the pity, I would see those eyes looking back at me from hundreds of people for the next 8 months. The rest of the day while I remember it in excruciating detail I also feel like was such a fog. Like I was watching this horrific thing unfold from outside of my body.
Within 1 week I had left my home, school, and friends in North Carolina and was living back home in Kentucky with my mom, and had my first appointment at Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, KY to meet with my oncology team. During the worlds longest appointment that included 3 mammograms, 2 ultrasounds, several breast exams, and a fine needle aspiration into my lymphnodes it was determined that I had estrogen and progesterone negative HER2 positive breast cancer grade three (very aggressive). It had already spread to my lymph nodes in my right arm leaving the staging at either 2B or 3A since it was unclear as to how many lymphnodes were affected – however, it didn’t change my treatment plan so my oncologist didn’t see any need in pressing the issue. I got my port a week later, and I started chemo 2 weeks after that.
I could go into the ins and outs of my chemo journey, and the traumatic experience that was my double mastectomy, but that’s not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is the loss. The loss that occurs once you have this cataclysmic event in your life, and while I know that this blog focuses on a cancer diagnosis, it doesn’t always have to be that. On top of the cancer diagnosis I was going through a divorce – talk about a double whammy. But when I found out that I had cancer I noticed that all of the titles that I so desperately clung to, that defined who I was, suddenly started falling away. I was no longer a wife, I was no longer a student, I wouldn’t become a respiratory therapist in May, I was even angry and feeling distanced from the God that I knew intimately and loved. Then the chemo wreaked havoc on my body and the hair that I had used as a shield was gone. My skin was broken out and patchy, and slowly but surely my eyebrows and eyelashes disappeared too. The steroids had made me gain weight. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself and I didn’t see any purpose or meaning in my life. Who was I now that everything that had defined me had fallen away?
And this is the part of the story that can make you or break you. When the moment comes where you start unbecoming and shedding the layers of who you thought you were it is absolutely terrifying and often painful. Because we’re taught our entire lives about the importance of gaining titles, right? Being the captain of the team. President of your class. Becoming a wife/husband and a mother/father. Getting those all-important letters before and after your name. I’m not taking away from the significance of these titles or telling you not to strive for whatever it is that you want – they’re valid and often important. But what I am saying is that in a matter of seconds those titles can be taken away from you, and then what will you have?
I lost most of my titles when I gained a new one – cancer fighter. That one title came in and rocked my world and in doing so knocked down all of those titles that I held dear. And one day I had to stop and look and ask myself, “Who am I?” Am IÂ simply a cancer patient? Is that all that’s left? The answer, for the record, is no, but it took me a while to really sit and acknowledge that. When it all fell away I realized I was left with what truly mattered, with the titles that I hold most dear, and that are my truest self. That’s what was left – my true self that no one, and no diagnosis, could ever take away from me.
I am Kayla.
I am a child of God.
I am strong.
I am someone who perseveres when the odds are stacked against me.
I am a survivor.
You see, you get to choose how you’re going to view this journey. You can focus on everything you have lost – and personally I think it is important to sit and acknowledge that and grieve. But if you’ll let it, the pain and the hard stuff, it shows you your truest self. The you that no person, and no diagnosis, can ever take away from you. And those things I listed above? Those are the parts of myself that no one and nothing can take away from me.
The best part about losing everything you thought you needed? Well you find out what you really need, and then the rest of it is wide open. The rest of your life is yours to do with whatever you please. To find and to chase your passion. Because now that you know yourself in the most intimate way, the way that only reveals itself when you face your pain head on, the world is yours for the taking. Psalm 96:1 says, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” but in order to start singing a new song, we have to first stop singing the old one.
So who are you?
What are you going to let define you?
What are you going to be left with when the chips are on the table?
Let the pain make you into someone greater. Find the meaning in your mess.
Because a woman who knows her true worth and self is the most powerful force there is.