It didn’t hit the way you would expect. When a tornado rips apart your world, there is usually some warning. The winds that are, at first, annoying and then concerning, give way to an ominous stillness as the sky turns gray, then black, then sickeningly green. The sirens begin their wailing; signaling the time to gather what is precious, take shelter, and ride out the destruction of the storm while whispering a prayer for protection, strength, and courage.
My tornado hit without warning, amidst blue skies and sunshine. The landscape it destroyed was my interior world. The experts – not meteorologists, but doctors – labeled this tornado Cancer.
For years I had put off getting annual mammograms. For good reason. They had always come back labeled “abnormal,” requiring additional and more expensive screening. These exams were embarrassing. Uncomfortable. Costly. Time-consuming. And they had always come back fine.
As a woman with an impossibly demanding national job that keeps me on the road most weeks, I rarely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone schedule and show up for a mammogram.
But then my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly, every spare minute was focused on her. From medical appointments and organizing meals, her needs took priority. I didn’t notice the clouds gathering on my own horizon.
My husband became uncharacteristically insistent about me getting a mammogram. I kept assuring him I would find time but never did.
Finally, he told me I had one month to make an appointment. If I didn’t, he would cancel whatever travel was on my calendar and make one for me.
Annoyed, I set the appointment. And I was even more irritated when the clinic called with the expected abnormal reading, requiring additional screening and a biopsy.
The tornado hit January 29, 2016 on a brilliantly blue-skied day. The doctor’s voice on the other end of the phone informed me I had breast cancer. A deafening darkness suddenly obliterated the blue sky. Shards of life circled violently; ripping, cutting, tearing.
The storm did not pass quickly. And its damage was immense.
For nine long months, my world was consumed with doctors; the hospital; excruciating surgeries; mind-altering, debilitating chemo, which was nothing short of violent; radiation; overwhelming fatigue and sickness; and despair. Work was a welcome distraction, but the realities of my treatment and physical limitations meant travel and energy was limited.
Just when I thought the unrelenting winds, rain, and darkness would take me down for the last time, the storm began to pass. And I was able to clearly survey what was left in its aftermath.
I gaped in horror at its devastation; my bald head, my lack of eyebrows, the scar that had replaced what had once been my breast. I resented the swollen, misshapen body steroids and chemo had left behind. And I wondered – I still wonder – if chronic pain defines the rest of my life.
But, by the grace of God and the unending love of my family and friends, there is still more life to live. I am alive and cancer-free. Battered. Bloodied. Bruised. Bent. But not broken.
While this tornado left a trail of devastation in its wake, my life was not a casualty. I’m still here, dammit. My family still surrounds me with love. My marriage has emerged intact, even stronger.
Slowly, painstakingly, I am rebuilding my life; coming to terms with the fact that it will never again resemble what existed before.
While I never stopped working, I am getting back to a schedule that more resembles my former pace. I am shaking off the fog and blackness of chemo, finding my retention and resiliency better every day.
My body, which is still limited by neuropathy, pain, and fatigue, is growing stronger. I am requiring less medication and able to walk farther and do more as time goes by.
Today, I return to the hospital to undergo the first of several surgeries to begin the reconstruction process. While I don’t look forward to another surgery and its resulting pain, I am grateful for progress toward a new normal. My normal.
My grandmother once told me I would know a storm had passed when I heard the birds sing. I’m listening. Already, I hear the faint but clear harmonies of the birds as they return. This storm has passed. And the song of the birds has never been sweeter.