It has been over four years since I heard the words, “You have cancer,” and yet I can remember that day as though it was yesterday. My story really starts in the shower in October of 2011. I can still feel the warm water rinsing off the exhaustion of life, which for me at that time meant chasing after my almost three-year-old and almost five-year-old daughters. Eyes closed, preparing to embrace a new day of chaos with the little ones as a stay-at-home mom, I was soaking in those last few minutes of quiet before the day officially began. So when I felt a lumpy patch of breast tissue near my right armpit as I was getting ready to turn off the water, it felt like I was ripped out of my steamy reverie. We’ve all had that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach, that feeling when we know something is not quite right – our gut instinct. And that is what I felt on that October morning, the gut instinct that this lumpy tissue was not good.
My breast cancer diagnosis happened fairly quickly after that. My doctor sent me for a breast ultrasound, thinking it was probably nothing given my age (32) and lack of risk factors, just to put my mind at ease. I can still picture the ultrasound tech, rubbing the wand over that bumpy tissue over and over again, smiling tightly, trying to determine what we were looking at. When she said that she needed to call the radiologist in, my gut tightened even more. It’s never good when the radiologist has to come in, I thought to myself. It felt like I was swimming through a fog in slow motion for the rest of the appointment when the ultrasound led to an immediate mammogram, which led to an immediate biopsy. When I finally found my voice again, I asked the radiologist, “What are we thinking here.” She looked me straight in the eye and said, “We have a strong suspicion this is cancer.” Cancer. And my world changed.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a very strong support network nearby during my surgeries and treatments. My mom and dad stepped in to help maintain my daughters’ day-to-day routine — driving them to school, taking them to activities, cooking meals. My husband had amazing co-workers who traded shifts with him so that he could attend all of my doctor appointments as well as the girls’ activities and events. My two sisters (who had both just had babies within weeks of my diagnosis) were available to help, despite their “caring for a newborn”-induced lack of sleep. Other family and friends brought meals by, volunteered to take the kids out for play dates, and just generally tried to make our life easier during this exhausting time. I literally had a village of support around me, which got me through those darkest days.
I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I was not bankrupted by my diagnosis. I had insurance that covered my medical expenses. That is why I am so grateful for sites like YouCaring, which give the people who cannot meet their day-to-day needs (on top of dealing with the harsh reality of life with cancer!) a tool to rally their communities to provide that much needed moral and financial support. Filled with gratitude for my fortunate personal circumstances, my post-cancer call-to-action became about paying forward the kindness my community had shown to me.
After enduring my surgeries and chemotherapy, I came out of my active treatments most distressed about the fact that my two daughters would now face a higher risk of dealing with breast cancer in their lives. The “Mama Lioness” instincts kicked in, and I began to investigate ways that I, as a non-scientist, could help advance scientific research that might specifically help my daughters someday. For me, that meant research on genomics, vaccines and anything that might help my daughters avoid walking my same path. As I looked into ways that I could support research (with a relatively small donation!), there wasn’t an easy way to direct my money to a specific project that was of interest to me. In addition, I wanted to remain connected to the research I was supporting given the potential for its direct impact on my family. Given the success of crowdfunding in other areas, the question for me became, “Why isn’t there a crowdfunding platform for medical research.” And thus the idea for Consano was born. Consano means “to heal” in Latin, and channeling the fear and anxiety of cancer to create this organization has brought immeasurable healing to me and my entire family.
Had you told me five years ago that I would found and run a healthcare non-profit, interact with medical researchers on a daily basis, meet some of the most inspiring people who have gone through unimaginable challenges, I would have thought you were crazy! But often life has different plans for us. Cancer rearranged my priorities in life, and while I’m not a believer that “cancer is a gift” (if so, I’d love to return it for my money back!), I do know that it accelerated my arrival at the conclusion that life is short, no day is guaranteed, it’s important to live in the moment, and there’s no such thing as sharing your gratitude and love too effusively with the people in your life.
When I look back at family pictures taken just weeks before my diagnosis, it’s like looking at a different life. While my mastectomy scars have faded over time, cancer has left an indelible mark on me. Each time I feel a new ache or pain, the first thought in my head is, “It’s back.” But I’ve also learned to embrace the joy of the small moments life brings. Hearing about my girls’ days at school, putting up the Halloween decorations, chatting with my mom on a long car-ride, holding hands with my husband on a walk around our neighborhood – those are the moments that matter. Using the power of gratitude and love to help counterbalance the fear and anxiety of cancer has helped me continue to walk forward, and to hopefully have a positive impact on people along the way.