Accept the Unexpected, Part 1
Standing on the highest boulder I could find, looking across the Yosemite Valley, I thought how God was such a masterful creator and artist. In that moment, had anyone walked up to me and said something like, “Hey, in a couple of weeks, you are going to be diagnosed with breast cancer,” I’d just have laughed. Ya, not a possibility.
I was only 23 at the time (2011). I was in the best shape of my life, and we all know women in their twenties aren’t diagnosed with breast cancer, right? We know that because most women don’t start having their boobies smashed by a machine until their 40s. A diagnosis of cancer would be so incredibly unexpected.
As a teenager, I dreamed of moving to Paris and going to Le Cordon Bleu to become an incredible chef and baker. A dear friend even bought me a 10-disc series so I could learn French. Nothing ever came of that.
I then saw myself becoming an oncology nurse. My grandma, my best friend as a child, passed away after getting diagnosed with uterine cancer in her early seventies. A decade or so beforehand, she had faced breast cancer. It had taken one of her breasts, but she survived and never spoke of it afterward.
After high school, I planned on going to Biola University in California to become a nurse. I moved my things into my dorm room and met my roommates. I took a test to begin prerequisites towards a nursing degree and even bought the required textbooks. Thankfully I didn’t remove any of the shrink wrap covering the books because I didn’t end up staying.
Plans can quickly change
Instead, I unexpectedly (even to myself) moved to an orphanage in Baja, Mexico, and took care of disabled orphans. Then I moved to Mazatlan, Mexico, and homeschooled two young boys whose parents were missionaries. From there, I became an Au Pair for a family in Germany and another family in Ireland. What an adventure!
In the blink of an eye, I was 23, just returning home from a hiking trip to Yosemite with my nephew and brother. I took a shower, dried off, and looked at myself in the mirror. A bruise directly above my right breast caught my eye. The bruise wasn’t there the day before, but that didn’t make sense because the bruise appeared to already be healing.
I couldn’t stop staring into the mirror. Then I dared myself to touch it. In that moment, without any kind of warning or choice in the matter, my unexpected journey with cancer began. Hands shaking, trying to hold onto my phone, I asked Dr. Google what the possibility of having breast cancer under the age of 25 was in 2011. Dr. G’s answer was 1 in 100,000. I felt pretty ok with this answer but made an appointment anyway.
Being diagnosed with cancer at a young age
After an ultrasound, mammogram, and biopsy, I waited. That weekend dragged on slower than a sloth eating a tree. Monday came, and I tried so hard to keep myself as busy as possible, then somehow I missed the phone call! I’m not sure how my heart didn’t rip out of my chest when I listened to the voicemail because it went like this: “ Hi Miss Ruby (my maiden name), I am calling to let you know we got your biopsy back, and we would like you to come in today at your earliest convenience. Oh! And we suggest you bring someone with you.” WHAT?!
I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer - invasive ductal carcinoma ER+/PR+ HER2+ BRCA negative. Sitting in the exam room with my mom, I thought hearing the doctor say that I had cancer would make it feel real, but it didn’t. All I felt was shock and disbelief. I couldn’t figure out how I became one of those 1 in 100,000 women under 25 years old with breast cancer.
In my uncertainty of what was the “right” thing to do, I ended up getting three opinions. Maybe I just couldn’t fathom losing the chest that I was only just then becoming comfortable with. Or maybe I wasn’t sure I could live with the probability that chemotherapy would most likely cause infertility, Or maybe I was just so terribly afraid that what was happening was real.
I wanted to wake up and be standing on that boulder in Yosemite again. But that was impossible. It was time to make a decision. To this day, my doctors are unsure of why I got breast cancer. Although my maternal grandma had breast cancer, the relationship is too far removed. They look at mom, aunt, and sisters' health history for a genetic mutation.
The final plan was to have a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction followed by 6 rounds of chemo, a year of Herceptin, and five years of Tamoxifen.
After finishing chemo, it was so important to me to show myself that cancer had not defined me, and I was still able to do the things that I did before cancer came crashing into my life.
My oldest niece was about to graduate from high school, and I wanted to experience Europe with her, so we flew to Barcelona, took a train to Paris, and then another train onto a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany (where I au paired for a family five years earlier). The trip was unforgettable.
Another surprise diagnosis
Something I noticed but didn’t want to make a big deal of was the crazy swelling I noticed in my feet. I figured my feet and ankles were about three times their regular size because of the long flight and simply from walking around three countries.
Once we got home, I went to a regularly scheduled echocardiogram. The ultrasound tech decided to do a complete echo instead of a partial echo on this particular day, and that decision saved my life.
I got a call from my cardiologist, who scheduled a transesophageal echo in order to get a better look at my heart. I woke up from the procedure to news that I had a congenital heart defect called Atrial Septal Defect. Apparently, it had never been detected before. During a visit with a cardiothoracic surgeon, one of the first questions he asked was, “have you noticed any swelling in your legs or feet?” My systolic and diastolic pressures had nearly flipped. I was showing symptoms of heart failure and didn’t even know it.
A few weeks later, I had open-heart surgery to repair the hole in my right atrium wall.
It’s fair to say that experience was very unexpected. But my life had been preserved. It was then that I reached out to a therapist to try and walk through all I had just encountered in the previous year. I felt so much healing in opening up to someone that could help me navigate through what had been dropped in my lap.
Life, suffering and living
Longing for what I thought was normalcy in my life again and a desire to get back into my love of traveling, I packed my little car and moved to San Clemente, California. I wanted to start a new life chapter and try to put all the trauma behind me. I rented a room in an apartment on a bluff. If I walked about a minute to the left, I had the most incredible view of the ocean.
I titled this article “Accept the Unexpected” rather than “Expect the Unexpected.” I like the idea of accepting the unexpected because it seems to carry a type of mental preparation for when (not if) life goes sideways.
But having now fought cancer for over a decade (more on that in part 2), I’ve learned a lot about life, suffering, and living. For most of us, when tragedy befalls us, we fight against it. And rightly so. If there’s anything we can do to prevent or escape suffering, it seems prudent to do so, if for anything, for our own sanity.
But I’ve also learned that there are some tragedies you simply can’t power or will yourself out of. I’ve learned that we only end up hurting ourselves (or others) when we fight against things we simply cannot change. This is where the wisdom of the serenity prayer shines. I love the first stanza that says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
A new level of acceptance
Cancer has taken some things from me that I’ll never get back. It’s taken my hair permanently. It’s taken my physical strength to travel the world and climb mountains like I once did. It’s taken my ability to have children.
I could continue to fight against these realities and make myself miserable and those around me. Or, I can take the hard and high road and learn to accept it. The key word is “learn.” It’s painfully difficult at times. So I have to re-learn over and over to accept that this is the story God is giving me, and what I’ve also learned is that if I’m open to them, if I look for them, there are hidden blessings I can still mine out of this story.
I’ve learned there are many amazing blessings I’d never known whether cancer had ever invaded my life. This helps me live with a heart of gratitude rather than bitterness.
I’m still learning and re-learning every day. Some days I’m good at it; some days, not so much. But one of those amazing blessings came from moving to California and meeting the man who not only became my husband but also helped me take this type of acceptance thinking to an entirely new level. That’s what I’ll share in the second half of this article.
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