Treatment: Surgery, Radiation
On March 21, 1996, I was awaiting the results of my breast biopsy. My patience had worn thin, so I called to get the results. A cheery receptionist quickly put me on hold, and finally the surgeon answered, saying, “Connie, I have your biopsy results.” There was a painful silence and the words just tumbled out, “You have breast cancer.”
I was in shock! I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. Drowning in panic and fear I screamed the words, “What did I do wrong?” It came from a deep, dark place inside me—a place I kept secret from the world—until now. I was 40 years old and our boys were just nine and 14—they needed a mother. What would they do if something happened to me? It was too awful to imagine.
The following weeks were a blur of tests, more biopsies, second opinions, and finally, surgery, treatment and radiation. Working in the medical field full-time, I knew too much. So, in an effort to alleviate my anxiety, I made jokes. Leaving for my 45-minute radiation treatments, I would say, “Can’t be late to radiate. Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go!” When I arrived at the hospital, I would announce myself by saying, “Excuse me, do you have my tanning bed ready?” Now, there’s absolutely nothing “funny” about having cancer, but I used humor to cope with my painful illness.
On the last day of treatment, I heard the words I never wanted to hear—words about my true survival rate. I was facing my own mortality for the very first time! I don’t remember walking outside and into the hospital parking lot, how I drove home that night, or even how the dozen pink celebratory roses made it to the kitchen table, but I do remember being numb over the next few days.
Depression had replaced fear. In an effort to get me “better,” my husband sent me off to California to visit my folks. I will never forget their expressions as I stepped off the plane. I was a mere skeleton with a zombie-like gaze, shuffling through the crowd of passengers. They tried to make small talk on the way home, but then they too fell silent. I spent the following week staring out the window of the guest bedroom. One afternoon, Dad came in and sat on the edge of the bed. He had tears streaming down his cheeks as he choked out the words, “Connie, your mom and I don’t know what else to do. Please tell us what to do.” I responded, “Dad I don’t know what to do!” Without hesitation Dad said, “No, I’m not going to let you do this to yourself. You have to get better—do you hear me? Mark needs you, the boys need you, and we need you!”
Dad was an expert mechanic. He could take a beat up old Chevy and make it run like new again, but he couldn’t fix me! As a little girl, I would run to him with my scraped knees and he would lovingly put a Band-Aid on it and say, “You’re fine now. Go play!” But there wasn’t a Band-Aid large enough for this wound.
Seven days later, in quiet desperation, my parents put me back on a plane to return home. I got a seat in a row all by myself, and crawled into a fetal-like position and rocked back and forth for six hours. Passengers bolted out of their seats to find safe refuge on other parts of the airplane, far away from the woman in seat 24B. I can’t blame them a bit!
Arriving back in Pennsylvania I was met by my husband of 20 years. He was expecting to see the all-new Connie—the one my Dad had fixed. But she was nowhere to be found. As we drove up the driveway to our home, I noticed the backyard had been perfectly landscaped. There were colorful flower beds where only mounds of dirt had been before. The lawn was immaculately groomed, and in the center was a beautiful pink dogwood tree. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the tree. My husband replied, “This is our tree of life—a new beginning. We’re starting a new chapter in our lives.” For the first time in weeks, I felt a brief glimmer of hope. Until then, everything had been in shades of gray, but this was a Technicolor moment. I wanted to hold on to it forever.
The next few weeks allowed me to build on that glimmer of hope. One afternoon as I looked out at that beautiful pink dogwood tree in full bloom, I asked myself the question, “What if I had a year to live—what would I do differently?” I randomly wrote down 27 things I wanted to do before I died. That would become my passionate “to do” list. I wrote such things as: spend more time with family and friends, take a vacation to Maine, write a book, take a photography course, and #27, parachute out of an airplane! I laid the list on the kitchen table and Mark picked it up and read each one out loud. Afterwards he announced, “I’m going to help you accomplish every one of your goals, and when that list is finished we’ll write another one and another one—for the rest of your life!” That was 10 years ago, and I have accomplished everything on my list except parachuting out of an airplane (I reserve the right to decline!).
Facing my own mortality allowed me to ask myself the difficult questions about life and death, but more importantly, it led me on a journey to find out what I was truly passionate about. Breast cancer allowed me an opportunity to carve out an entirely new life for myself, one of joy, purpose and passion. I started a line of cards, to bring hope and inspiration to cancer survivors. I wrote my life story in a book and started a line of gift baskets for cancer survivors and their caregivers. Cancer was the beginning of an entirely new life.
Each day is a gift filled with joy, purpose and passion, and I have learned to live in the present moment. As a speaker and author I have the privilege of sharing with others how, through my greatest pain, I discovered my greatest passion—speaking and writing. Do I think that my passionate to-do list will ever be complete? I certainly hope not; in fact, I’m depending on it!