It was our second trip to the fertility specialist in two days and her sixth medical appointment that week. The sun was warm, the windows down, and cars were whizzing past us on the highway the day when my 26-year-old daughter, Lindy, turned to me and said, “You know Mom, it has never occurred to me that I am going to die.” I gripped the steering wheel and felt my shoulders tense, I realized that Lindy dying was all that I could think about.
Having just finished her first year as a fourth grade teacher, Lindy felt a small lump in her breast one morning. She’d had small lumps before, all harmless, all benign. However, this one felt different so she mentioned it at her annual check up a couple of months later during a visit home. Her healthcare provider decided to take a closer look. Everyone at the office agreed that it did look a little different from the other lumps on the breast ultrasound. Surely, it was nothing to worry about, but no harm in doing a biopsy just to be on the safe side. I was so sure that it was nothing, I never even asked Lindy when she would get the biopsy results back. Within a couple of days, however, Lindy got a call. The results indicated a very aggressive and invasive form of breast cancer called HER 2 Positive. Twenty-four hours later, Lindy, her father, and I found ourselves sitting across the table from a breast surgeon going over her pathology report and discussing next steps.
With no history of breast cancer in the family, my head was reeling from the shock that came with my young adult daughter’s breast cancer diagnosis. It was also not lost on me that Lindy was exactly the same age at the time of her cancer diagnosis as I had been when I gave birth to her. I had given her life once, I reminded myself, so surely I could somehow breathe it back into her now. During those early days, when I wasn’t accompanying her to medical appointments, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about her cancer and treatment. The plan was to hit this cancer fast, and hit it hard. This meant Lindy would receive chemo and targeted biologics even before surgery. In my reading, I learned that one of the chemo drugs would put Lindy into early menopause, perhaps permanently. Going through fertility treatments to harvest and freeze her eggs meant delaying the beginning of her cancer treatment. Lindy really wanted to go through fertility treatment to try and harvest her eggs. I really wanted her to forgo fertility treatment so that she could begin cancer treatment right away. Her oncologist told Lindy that she had two weeks before she must begin cancer treatment.
In that moment in the car, however, I realized that what Lindy really wanted most was to make the most of the very few choices she was given. I also realized that as her mother and caregiver, I needed to get on board. So, I supported Lindy through fertility treatments. I gave her the shots each night. I watched her cry in pain after the surgery to harvest the 12 eggs. Later on, I watched her have hot flashes as her ovaries shut down during chemo. I won’t know for some time the long-term effects of the chemo on Lindy’s ovaries. But, what I do know is that when Lindy made the decision to pursue fertility treatments and delay beginning chemo, she was choosing hope. When I supported Lindy’s decision as the right one for her, I also was choosing hope. This might have been the first time after her breast cancer diagnosis that we chose hope together, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
Choosing hope has been quite unlike any of the other choices that I ever made with Lindy. Usually, we were choosing things like whether to buy a used family sedan in blue or black or whether to spend a free day hiking or swimming. But when I was faced with the reality of a young adult daughter with an aggressive breast cancer, choosing hope represented a very different kind of choice. Unlike buying a used car that happens every so often, choosing hope happens every minute of every day. Unlike hiking or swimming, choosing hope happens in the midst of really difficult choices, or sometimes no choice at all. I still have a lot to learn about choosing hope, but here are a few of the things that I have learned so far.
Choosing hope is about embracing life as it is, not the way it ought to be.
Instead of asking, “Why me? Why my daughter?” I started asking myself, “Why not me? Why not my daughter?” Tragedy can knock on anyone’s door. I learned that both joy and sorrow come with living a full life.
Choosing hope is about letting go, not about holding on more tightly.
Instead of holding Lindy even closer and making decisions for her, I learned that I must set Lindy free to live her own life, make her own decisions, and accept her own set of consequences.
Choosing hope is about being grateful and not taking things for granted.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the challenges of each day, I learned to be on the lookout for the simple things that helped me feel grateful. The first entry in my gratitude journal was how grateful I was to find a good parking spot at the hospital that morning.
Choosing hope is about redefining what it means for the future to look bright, not waiting for it to happen.
Instead of holding out hope that Lindy will have the best outcome possible, I learned that whatever the outcome, I would somehow find the strength and courage to get through today.
Choosing hope is about moving forward, not standing still.
Instead of letting my thoughts, beliefs, and actions happen to me, I learned to be more proactive. I couldn’t change what was happening to my child or my family, but I could change how I thought about it, what I believed about it, and how I reacted to it.
Ultimately, I am discovering that choosing hope means learning anew about love and loyalty, strength and forgiveness, acceptance and faith, honor and gratitude, morality and mortality. I used to think that in caring for Lindy that I was the one breathing new life back into her. I realize now that my beautiful and talented young adult daughter with breast cancer was really breathing new life back into me by helping me learn about choosing hope.
Do you have a young adult child living with cancer? I’d love to hear from you! Email me at email@example.com.
Liz Anderson is the mother of four young adult children, one of whom has been diagnosed with HER2 Positive Breast Cancer. In addition to being an advocate for young adult women with breast cancer, Liz is a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University/SUNY. Liz resides with her husband, Richard, in Binghamton, New York.