Cancer Broke My Cup

Sometimes I still can’t believe that I even have had cervical cancer, much less still dealing with the fallout from it-complications from surgery, side effects of radiation. I intellectually know that it happened, but there are moments where I look at myself and my life and go, “Wait…what?” Sometimes I actually look at and feel my radiation tattoos before getting in the shower. Yeah, I know that is weird, but there are times I need to connect with it — I need to stare at my markings, touch my port, my scars- to physically say, okay this happened and to remember just how far I have come. To have a slight even if for 20 seconds-mini celebration that I am here-that I have endured.

See, I believe we all have a choice when it comes to how we are going to look at our cancer, much how we all have choices in how we view anything in life. Are we going to be the cup half full girl? OR are we going to be the cup half empty girl? Before cancer-the answer was easy for me. I definitely was a silver linings person, taking lemons and making lemonade. I have had laugh lines since I was 10 and have always been able to find something to smile about. But enter a cancer diagnosis..enter in chemotherapy and radiation…enter in internal radiation…enter in infertility…enter in surgery…enter in (fill in the blank).Suddenly, being the cup half full chick was not as easy. I had faced some really tough things before, but never was my life on the line. Never had I been told, “You can either do treatment or live for about 3 more years.” Of course, I had thought about life after death, but NEVER had I really truly sat with it as a possibility. And what would treatment look like for me? Could I even do it? I remember sitting there with my oncologist when she was explaining to me where the cancer was, giving me my stage. She started explaining the action plan and what was going to happen to my body. Time stood still as I looked at her mouth moving. Nothing was really the same after.

Now back to that choice. I had to consciously ask myself, “How are you going to approach this?” I was scared of all of the unknowns. I had never even been in the hospital! Was I going to STILL be the cup half full girl? I remember coming home alone that day and crying one of those big cries — where you just lay and cry, and cry, and cry. The kind of cry where you get up and look at yourself in the mirror and your face is puffy and you have a sinus headache. That’s where I was. Half full? I was afraid and devastated. How could I even be a half full girl? I felt like someone had just taken my cup and shattered it on the floor. My cup was broken. Dreams were stolen. I was afraid. Cancer had come in my life like a thief.

Yet. I still had this choice to make. Cancer had broken my cup, but I was still here. Life would never ever be the same, but there was a plan forward. It was a hopeful plan-not without risks and not without pain and loss, but there was a plan.

There is a Japanese art form, in pottery called “kintsugi.” It is a process that embraces damage-where the broken vessels are not discarded, but where broken pieces are mended. The artist takes the ceramic pieces and mends them with a lacquer dust of gold, silver, or platinum. The flaws of the piece are actually highlighted and not hidden at all, often resulting in a piece that is far more beautiful than the original plan. The art form ties in the Japanese philosophy of “wabi-sabi” that embraces the flawed and imperfect, that actually emphasizes rather than hides the broken pieces.

So as I looked at the pieces of my broken cup-this vessel I had plans for, this vessel that was not operating on the original plan; I chose to start picking up the pieces. The cup does not look anything like it did before, but just like in wabi-sabi, the more I embrace instead of hide, the more beautiful it becomes. I have to constantly remind myself of these truths. Oh how I wish, it could be where I just pick it up mend it and move on. For those of us who have faced cancer-we know that it’
truly never “over.” I feel like mending my cup is a daily choice. I find myself even now, while being declared “cancer free” in October, still very much dealing with complications from a life-saving surgery-complications that will more than likely be part of my life in some way from now on. In addition to the reality of “scan-life” and other life altering side effects from treatment. So the question constantly remains for me, for us: Your cup may be broken like mine-will you leave it shattered or will you begin to piece it back together with gold and platinum, turning your brokenness into purpose and beauty? The choice is yours.

We need to talk. We need to have conversations about cervical cancer and prevention. Let my simple t-shirt design, help you begin that conversation AND help me pay both past and current medical expenses related to cervical cancer.

 Unfortunately, I am in need of another surgery due to post radiation side effects, from a life-saving hysterectomy. This surgery will repair significant damage that has been done to my bladder and will require a 6-8 week recovery. Just as with the past leaves I have I had to take, I will not be getting paid during this period. Donations through my t-shirt campaign can significantly help with expenses and you’ll look super cool! There are hoodies and t-shirts for guys and girls! https://www.bonfire.com/start-the-conversation/

A letter to my mother 20 years after she died from Cervical Cancer

Dear Mom,

I often think of you as my guardian angel and that you can see me. You can see me driving a car fast like you begged me not to do so many times. You see me laughing. You see me with my friends. You see me making a tough decision, and having to be assertive. And when you see me and my brothers, you smile. It’s your big wide, gapped tooth smile. You smile and you put your head down, like I do when I smile. Sometimes with the smile you shake your head. You approve of what you see. You are pleased with us.

Do you know that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month? Sometimes I really wish that I didn’t know that.  I really wish that the day in 1992 when you told me that you had cervical cancer never happened. Your smile was not there. You were sitting in a chair in your bedroom and you told me that you had cervical cancer. When you said it, your eyes closed and you grabbed your hands together. At the time, to me it felt like you were confessing something. I was too young and naïve to understand that you were scared. You said that there was an 85% survival rate. Because I thought this was a confession, I was relaxed. I relaxed during the whole conversation. There was no way that you would die.  My young, naïve mind said death happened to other peoples’ moms, not my mom.  Besides, I thought to myself, there would be no point of your death. You were too much of a good person.

I remember in 1995 coming to see you in the hospital and I was still relaxed.  My grandma was not. She pulled me into the hospital hallway and said that you were not going to get any better. In that moment, my heart went from the 8th floor of that hospital to laying on the ground on the street below. You were not supposed to die.

But in 1996 you did die. And I was left with a myriad of questions about the thing that took you from us. I did not hear many people talking about cervical cancer. What was HPV? How come you were not part of that 85% that lived?

In 2006, ten years after your death, I met a woman who explained all of this to me. Her name was Tamika and she was on a journey. She was racing to beat the clock to eradicate Cervical Cancer. When I learned about her journey, I saw Tamika and Friends as an army with soldiers. You always taught me to fight. I picked up my weapon and joined ranks with these cervical cancer soldiers. I was never going to let another woman get cervical cancer.

I have learned so much since you have been gone mom. I have learned about Henrietta Lacks, the different strands of HPV that cause cervical cancer, and how it is incredibly important to go to the gynecologist. And I have learned that sometimes bad things happen to good people. It is sad to admit this mom but your death has taught me just as much as your life.

Mom, I am faced with the cold fact that this year, you will have been out of my life for the same amount of time that you were in it.  I hope that you see that the world has changed and that I have changed. You always taught me to help other women and I have been doing that. I once met a girl who was in a job training program. I was doing a group counseling session with her and other young women. We talked about ultimate life goals. The girl had been quiet for most of the group. When it was her turn to say what, she wanted most in the world, she replied, “I just want to make my mother proud.” I touched her hand and I said, “Me too.”

I cannot see you, but the thought that you are smiling at me motivates me on my darkest days. It makes me want to talk to people about cervical cancer, organize communities, be a better mental health provider and be a servant of the Lord.  I do not know if you can really see me, but I have realized that I see you every time I do an act of kindness.

Hugs and kisses.

Your only daughter,

Lilly