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“Mom, please call me back as soon as possible. They want me to get a scan of the lump right away.” These words, left on voicemail by my 19-year-old daughter who had only recently moved 3,000 miles away to college, made my pulse race. I froze in the kitchen, looking out the same window at the same bamboo fluttering in the breeze, and remembered the “you have breast cancer” call I received 15 years ago in the exact same spot.
There was a time I thought I wouldn’t see the kindergarten bus come for this child who was 4 years old when I was diagnosed. She watched me fight like hell for five long years of active treatment, losing my hair, my breasts, all the lymph nodes under my right arm, my uterus, my ovaries, while she lost the vibrant, engaged mom who once showered attention on her and her 1-year-old baby sister. She watched me say yes to every treatment option that was offered. She watched me change my food, my fitness, my spiritual practice, my belief that the future was guaranteed and learned along with me how to live in the moment, to quietly watch our animal messengers, the dragonflies, land around and on us when we would ask for a sign that everything would be ok.
Over the years, we periodically discussed the fact that while there was no family history of breast cancer on my side of the family, there was on her dad’s side, and because I was in my early 30s when diagnosed, she and her sister would need to start getting monitored in their early 20s. If they were going to get it, we would discover it as soon as possible so they would have the best chance of living a long and healthy life. I didn’t want them facing a late stage 3 diagnosis like I had, simply because breast cancer just wasn’t on my radar as even a remote possibility, leading me to ignore the signs my body gave me along the way.
Over calls and texts from waiting rooms over the course of that long day of worry and what ifs, they finally got her on a table with an ultrasound technician and the radiologist said the lump didn’t have to be removed yet, but my daughter would need to be closely monitored, effectively immediately, not starting in her early 20s. Being a college student with way more pressing social matters on her mind, she went back to her exciting life in New York City, and I moved this worry up my list…this worry that nothing I can do will prevent her from the very high likelihood that she too will be part of the 12.5% of women in the US, the 1 in 8, who will face breast cancer in their lifetime.
I am so grateful to still be here to carry this worry for my eldest child. I am so fortunate to still be here to walk with her through what may come in the years ahead. I know that my number can still be called, that cancer can still be growing silently in my body, that estrogen positive breast cancer can come back 5, 10, even 20 years later, but I still grab life by the handful every single day, having learned 15 years ago that every day I wake up breathing is a gift.
On Monday, I came home from a marathon day at the new Handful office to my two dogs running to greet me at the door. Romeo, the 1-year-old pandemic puppy, and Bodhi, the loyal 12-year-old who lives up to his Buddha name, both approached when suddenly Bodhi let out a cry and collapsed onto the floor. Knowing he had been inside all day and probably needed to go pee badly, I took him into the garage and set him down. He immediately rolled onto his back, paddling his legs in the air frantically. This was the second seizure he’s experienced in the last few months. When he rolled back over, he was pinned on his stomach and peed himself in a puddle with confusion in his eyes. He then tried to drag himself out of the wet spot but had lost all movement in his hind legs.
I wrapped Bodhi up and took him to the emergency vet and stood outside for hours while they tended to him. I looked up at the beautiful blue sky and saw a new art installation that the city had put in next to the vet’s office. It was of a giant rainbow colored fish, its metal tongue flicking out to capture a dragonfly. It reminded me of all the times I had called out to the Universe, asking for a sign that everything was going to be ok. A fish eating a dragonfly, the circle of life, a reminder that all is exactly as its meant to be. It was fitting for this moment, for this sweet amazing canine soul who comforted me during all the days I spent in bed, and all the nights I lay awake in pain, in fear, in suffering, the soul who took on the family trauma of divorce after cancer, who went back and forth for parenting time with the girls, absorbing our brokenness, always longing for the pack to be back together in one place but helping us accept what we couldn’t change…that we never would all be together again. This loyal sweet boy who reminds me that it’s a privilege to feel the great loss that comes from loving something, to bear witness to the aging process, to remember that each day we live is always one day closer to our own endings.
Today, in honor of my 15th cancerversary, you best be grabbing life by the handful with me, people, and moving those hind legs of yours in honor of my good boy Bodhi who lays at my feet as I type this, inexplicably still kickin’!
Thank you for sharing your story in such a relatable and honest way. I remember seeing you years ago at Diva Den for dance fitness and even though we never chatted, you had a big and memorable presence with just your beautiful energy! Wishing you and your family the best as we continue on this journey of life.
You continue to inspire. I am sorry for the scare you and your daughter had.
Keep moving forward and inspiring and educating others! Xox
Cary, What a beautiful photo, what beautiful writing, what a beautiful soul you are. Thank you for being there and responding to me when I asked questions, and sending my breast pads to France.
This brought tears to my eyes as I remember my “lost year” almost twenty years ago. Thanks for reminding me to give thanks for being here today.
Thank you for sharing your story. I just passed my 14 year cancerversary. You write so well!!
Thank you for your inspiring story of your journey. You are a strong and beautiful young lady and I feel honored to know you. Thank you for loving on my daughter and being such a wonderful role model. #Handfulforlife #continuetofight
Well, thanks for the tears, lady. 😂
I reached 16 years and 6 years this year. (Idk if you know about the second primary I had 6 years ago)
Well, we press on. Helping those diagnosed after us and celebrating the good things in life.
Love and health to you and yours, and a special shout out to Bodhi. Keep on keepin on old man.
As always, I am humbled by your amazing words, and your descriptive recollection of such a painful, heartbreaking moment that sent your world spinning 15 years ago. No one will ever be able to grasp the depth of personal change that took place in you once you heard the words “You have breast cancer.” I am in awe of you everyday. You are strong, courageous, a brilliant writer, an amazing friend, a fantastic mom, daughter and sister, and you give so much of yourself to the world. You are out spreading the word and educating others that being your best advocate can save your life. I am grateful we met because of this diagnosis, and I feel so lucky to be able to reap the gift of time by your side. Cheers to 50 more buddy! Love you!
A beautiful uplifting story, GOD Bless you
I needed this today. My cancer has returned after 7 years, I learned this week. Tomorrow is precious but never promised ❤️
Be well. Be happy.
Cary you are an amazing woman. thank you for sharing this beautiful and touching story.
you are all in my prayers
your fellow dragonfly neighbor
What a powerful essay on the struggles we as cancer survivors face. Although our experiences and paths are different, we have all had the same fear, and doubts and hopes. In Feb it will be 5 years for me and I am grateful for each day.
Thanks for the reminder to be in gratitude even when life hands us challenges. I am a thriver after having breast cancer 3 times, and yes it was almost 20 years when it came back. I love the bra’s and you were so helpful right after surgery. I hope your daughter is ok. I sometimes worry about mine, hoping she doesn’t have to walk this path. I am so grateful to still be here doing life.
Thank you for sharing and showing how to be grateful amidst not just the joy but also the chaos, uncertainty, worry, and sadness of being alive… You make the most of the gift of life. Happy cancerversary!!
so glad this crossed my path today. beautifully written beautiful thoughts. So proud to know you xxoo
I continue to be amazed at what you can do with words. Your writing is so profound and thought provoking. We love you to pieces and will continue to keep you, the girls, and your fur babies in our thoughts and prayers. ❤️❤️❤️❤️🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
What a beautiful tribute to your strength and determination! Hoping for many years of health to you, the girls……and Bodhi!