You want to know the facts and details. The figures of what this means. I can easily rehearse the same monologue to you that I have rehearsed so many times over in so many different places.
“I thought there was something strange a while ago, maybe even years…”
“My husband noticed it first, and I told him it was no big deal…”
“I mean, my boob has always been a little weird…”
“I was waiting for a good time to get it looked at…”
I can tell you the exact date of when I learned that I had breast cancer—June 12, 2021.
I can tell you that the cancer was called Stage 2, Grade 1—both very good things.
I can tell you that I have triple positive breast cancer (ER+, PR+, and HER2+)—lucky like a loose Vegas slot machine.
I can tell you that no one in my family has ever had breast cancer and that there’s no evidence I will pass it on.
Just lucky, I guess.
There was a moment, though, that crossed the line of fact and into something more. A surreal meeting of worlds where fact and reality lifted just enough to feel the immensity of something larger below.
It was nearly sunset. The light was coming in over my garden that was green and growing. I sat in a wooden chair and picked up the phone when it rang. It was my doctor calling about the results from my PET scan—a scan that turned my body into a radioactive positron emitter like something from Ghostbusters.
The PET scan, like a magician made of protons and rainbow dye, had pulled back its silk handkerchief to reveal cancer in my femur and five tumors in my liver. Of course, these new findings were in addition to the myriad of cancers now identified in both breasts and possibly my ovaries.
I was not scared. I wasn’t even really unhappy. I might have laughed. The plot point was so banal. So obvious. As if the writers of my life story had pitched the biggest ideas they could think of to ensure at least some mediocre ratings.
Willow’s Life Pitch Meeting
Writer 1: Mental illness!
Writer 2: Global pandemic!
Writer 1: She’s infertile, but gets pregnant—
Writer 2: With twins!
Writer 1: And then they die.
Writer 2: AND THEN SHE GETS CANCER.
Just shoddy writing.
It was from force of habit, I think, to ask him how much time there was. He responded, “Are you ready to have this conversation right now?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
“Untreated, a person can live as little as a few months up to a couple of years. With treatment, it can be three times that.” He was kind and empathetic, despite my laugh. He probably has dealt with my kind before. Totally incapable of taking even death seriously. “You have years,” he said solemnly, “but not decades.”
In the moment, there was no time to wrap my head around that information. There was no time to think about my 4-year-old becoming 11 without me. There was no time to think of my 13-year-old making marriage covenants without a mother there to hold her hand and tell her it was all going to be alright.
But there was a butterfly. A beautiful gold and black monarch, its wings glinting like colored glass in the fading light. Even as he asked me if I was alright, it dipped down and back up, fluttering past as if the world had not fundamentally changed forever. An extraordinary beauty in the darkest place.
I have a lot of facts, now. The fact that I have lost over 20 pounds in three months. The fact that people with my type of cancer live longer than many other people who face metastatic breast cancer. The fact that I am incredibly blessed to have a HER2+ cancer that can be treated with the miracle cures of Herceptin and Perjeta. The fact that my mouth tastes like sand and I sometimes wish that I were dead.
But I don’t wish to be dead. I wish to be alive. I wish that I could be as alive now as I was when I was 17 and not have to weigh every moment and meal on the scale of life and death.
I have realized one truth: life is losing. Losing your beauty. Losing your dreams. Losing your passion. Losing children. Losing faith. Losing hair.
But there is magic in losing.
It is in the loss that we find something beyond what we imagined. It is in the loss that we find something bigger and deeper at work in our lives. To lose, to sacrifice, is the price we pay to come closer to the infinite and find the measure of our own souls.
President David O. McKay recalled a story in 1949 where a well-meaning teacher for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke harshly against the leadership of the Martin Handcart Company—leadership that led many faithful members of the church through perilous circumstances to the Salt Lake Valley, a journey that ended with the deaths of many of the company.
President McKay said:
“A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.
“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.
“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.
“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, p. 8.)
Facts don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The third-party observations of fairness, regret, or what-ifs have no place when it comes to understanding the reasons for the trials we go through.
It is in the losing that we find God and faith. Whatever price that we are called to pay to know ourselves and our place in the universe is never a loss.
I’m sorry that I have cancer. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me a little mad. A lot mad, sometimes.
But I am happy to pay whatever price I am asked to pay to know God better. I am happy to lose whatever I don’t need in order to find what God has waiting for me on the other side.
Well, maybe not happy. But I’m watching for butterflies.