I’m about to be painfully honest. When the executive director of the North Central Alabama Susan G. Komen North chapter, Veronica, asked me if I wanted to lead the Parade of Hope at this year’s Race for the Cure event a few weeks ago, I was truly touched but disgruntled. Only hours before, I had told my family that I wasn’t even going to participate in this year’s race because life had felt a little too “cancery” lately and I was afraid being at the event would make me feel that way even more so. Now I was expected to be front and center. Essentially a mascot for breast cancer. Forced to smile and parrot my cancer stats like a broken record that, frankly, I was tired of playing lately. “Diagnosed at 31. Stage four. Breast to bone. No family history. Chemo worked wonders. All good for now. Treatment every three weeks at UAB. Work full time. Two small kids. Proud to be here. Love me some Jesus.”
You may be asking yourself what exactly is “too cancery,” and the truth is it’s hard to explain because hopefully you haven’t had cancer and empathy is out of bounds for you in this area. The truth is that, with breast cancer (or any cancer, I imagine), especially stage four, it is a scarlet “C” on your life. Big and scary and loud and unpredictable. It’s not like getting an unfortunate haircut or dating that guy that was totally wrong for you in every single way when you were in college. With those bad decisions, you can just erase the pictures and move on with your life. With cancer, it becomes the banner of your life’s story. A monogram on your journey that often dictates how the world sees and approaches you. It also makes me the ultimate awkward stranger because anytime someone compliments my short hair, I blurt out, “I have cancer!” It’s almost like it bubbles so close to the surface that it just spills out my thoughts and fears onto anyone that dare look at me for too long. It is ingrained in who I am. Even two years later with fantastic treatment results and a seemingly long future ahead of me, I still struggle with the fact that this is my life for the rest of my life. It’s part of every equation. Every decision. Every plan made. Every desire felt. It’s always there. There’s no separating yourself from it. After your diagnosis, you are forever changed. No going back. A new normal.
But when I stop and think about it, I thank God for that new normal. It may be a long road to walk, but the life that I’ve led since I was diagnosed has been more beautiful and more impactful than the 31 years before it. Because everything is sweeter. Everything means more. Everything is more appreciated, and the depth behind that gratitude is a powerful force that not many people come face to face with. I know joy because I know the real, sobering darkness of an uncertain future. Do you know how much brighter the light is when you come out of the darkness? Blinding. So when people look at me crazy when I rush the soccer field to pick up Presley, sling her on my back and gallop around like some crazed horse when she scores a goal in practice, it’s because I know every moment is to be celebrated. It’s all so precious.
I also knew, even when I begrudgingly accepted the invite to lead the parade, that this is the calling on my life. This banner that is sometimes heavy to hold has opened so many doors that would have stayed shut had I not been diagnosed. Having opportunities to share and encourage and lift up others in similar situations or in other hard situations is a gift. Not a curse. People always ask “why?” when bad things happen, but I don’t have to. I know why. This happened to me because not only did my own life need to change but God saw that others could be healed from my sickness. Others could benefit from me walking this thing out in the most positive way possible. Others could gain from my loss. Others could be pushed to be better and do better. It’s not about me at all. Learning to focus on that singular fact — that my pain could be somebody else’s gain — is what keeps me going on my hardest days.
And the second I walked into the gates at the Race for the Cure event Saturday, I was rewarded for seeing that responsibility to others through.
You see, this year they had a special colored shirt for metastatic patients so I could spot my stage-four sisters in the massive crowd. The first person I got to meet that day was a woman who was thirty-four years into her stage four journey. Thirty-four years! Praise be to God, it was exactly what I needed to hear since I honestly had started to put together the necessary pieces of my very own pity party lately. Thirty-four years of memories. Watching kids grow up. Date nights with her husband. Goals set and achieved. Thirty-four years of life lived. Thousands of little moments she had experienced that had eventually built up to a long life lived. I wanted to know all her secrets but I just hugged her, let the tears fall, and said, “Thank you for sharing.”
The day continued to be emotional from the parade to the hard-earned finish line. (Good googley, I need to work out more often.) There was truthfully some pain when I realized that there weren’t as many stage-four colored shirts as there were other survivors. It sharpened the truth that I live with everyday that I’m special in a way that people long not to be. But the back of my shirt didn’t lie. You see, the back of the stage four shirts said “Thriver” instead of “Survivor.” And if that ain’t me, I don’t know what is.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve thrived. Through treatment. Through scans. Through fear and endless prayers to overcome. My life since December 2016, has been truly amazing. When I think of the word “survive,” I think of barely coming away with your life. When I hear the word “thrive,” I think about all the things I try to do on a daily basis. Be grateful. Make memories. Enjoy. Love others. Have fun. Be yourself. “Thrive” makes me feel like I’m pouring into instead of throwing out my many, many, many blessings. I will wear the banner of “Thriver” all day, every day that God sees fit to carry me through this journey.
Now if only Destiny’s Child would’ve come out with a song called “Thrivivor,” I would have the ultimate theme song I could play whenever I walk into a room. Meh. Can’t win ‘em all.
I want to sincerely thank Veronica and the North Central Alabama Susan G. Komen North chapter for including me in this year’s Race for the Cure event. It was truly an honor to walk among the thousands of people who support this incredible cause every single year.
Even if you weren’t at the event, you can still donate here.