July 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm is when my life changed forever. I will always remember that moment when life as I knew it stopped, and I started planning for my physical demise. I was 32-years old and 34 weeks pregnant with my first child, when I was taken into an exam room to receive my breast biopsy results from a lump I found. I was accompanied by not one, but two nurses as my husband and I sat waiting for the interventional radiologist. The moment he walked in, I knew the news wasn’t good. The normally cheery and engaging doctor couldn’t even make eye contact with me. As he began talking, there were no mincing words. He came right out and said it: “This is a breast cancer.”
I didn’t hear much after that. I was in shock and disbelief. My mind immediately went to a dark and sad place. Before my baby was even born, I was thinking about all of the milestones of his I would miss and all the memories we wouldn’t be able to make together. I had breast cancer. And most likely Stage III breast cancer due to the size of the tumor and the likely involvement of lymph nodes. Little did I know, the news would get worse.
But before it got worse, we got to experience the best moment of our lives on August 15th when Logan Kristopher was born. In the midst of so much fear and sadness in the past few weeks, we had a few days of happiness as we soaked in our first moments as a family of three.
Four days later, I had my first PET scan for staging purposes. While in recovery from having my port placed with my husband by my side, my surgeon came in to tell me that the cancer had spread to my liver and multiple bones. I had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Once again, I didn’t hear or comprehend a whole lot of what he said after that. But, there was one thing he said that I did hear which resonated with me. As we cried in disbelief, he knew we must be thinking about how little time I may have left. My surgeon, who had a compassionate bedside manner, gently took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “Kristin, you are here NOW. Go enjoy a date night out, go to the movies, take your son for a walk.”
At the time, it sounded almost callous. I thought what nerve for him to tell me that I have Stage IV cancer and then in the same breath, tell me to go enjoy a night out like nothing was wrong. Was he crazy? Was he being patronizing? My life was over as I saw it. How could I ever enjoy the simple pleasures of life again with this diagnosis looming over my head? It seemed near impossible in that moment.
The weeks and months that followed proved to be some of the most difficult of my life. I was sad. I was angry…really angry. I welcomed sleep because at least when I was sleeping I wouldn’t be thinking of how little time I may have left with my son and family. When I woke in the morning, I would experience a brief moment of thinking it was all a bad dream, and then reality would set in and I would retreat back into darkness. All I could focus on was the future and how much of it I may not get to experience. I can’t remember when exactly it happened, but at some point several months later, a light switch went off and I had that “ah ha!” moment, as Oprah Winfrey has described. I suddenly understood what my surgeon was talking about the day he told me my cancer had spread and oh, by the way, go have fun! He was RIGHT! I WAS still here, at this very moment in time, so why was I not getting busy living? I was so focused on the uncertainty of my future that I was missing out on the present. That’s when I made some changes in my life.
Here are a few things I do regularly to help me live in the moment:
Meditation. I have never meditated before but my husband and I started doing it together every day with the help of an App called Headspace. Mediation not only helped ease my anxiety, but it also helped me to learn how to live more in the moment and to experience life as it is right now.
Exercise. Exercise has always been an important part of my life and may be even more so now. Nothing makes me feel more “normal” or alive than a really great workout. The more I move, the better I feel physically and mentally.
Do what you love. I am a nurse practitioner and I have been working with heart failure patients for many years. I love my patients and I love what I do. It is part of who I am. There was no question that I wanted to return to work after I finished my initial chemo. When I returned to work, I found that not only did I regain my sense of purpose, but I was able to focus on other people’s health issues which was a great distraction from my own. I know working is not for everyone, but you should do what brings you joy and purpose.
Practice gratitude. This is something I just recently began to practice on a daily basis by keeping a daily gratitude journal. I have found that the more I focus on things in my life to be grateful for, the more the fear, sadness, and negativity seem to just melt away.