Ten years ago to the day, I received a phone call at 3:00 pm on a Friday.
“Heather, I’ve read the results of your biopsy. You have what’s called Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.” Invasive Ductal Carci-what-a?? I thought. The radiologist explained that there was cancer in my breast tissue and also in the lymph node they had biopsied. They couldn’t say at the time what stage my cancer was because they didn’t know how many more lymph nodes were affected. I asked a lot of questions about next steps, but she wasn’t super helpful. “You’ll need to find a surgeon” was about it.
Again, this was 3:00 on a Friday. I was scheduled to head to my fourth-grade son’s poetry reading any minute. I had only a moment to call my husband, who was heading to the school as well, to let him know. As we sat watching our son read about Carl Sandburg and poetry about nature, my mind was racing. I had no idea what the survival rate of my cancer was since they didn’t know how far it had spread. Was this going to be the last time I saw a performance by one of my children? I knew that was probably overdramatic, but I really had no idea.
Luckily, I seem to be blessed with the genes of an optimist, or at least someone who doesn’t waste time dwelling on unknowns and postulating about a lot of negative “what-if” possibilities. So, that weekend, we got to work. We reached out to just about everyone we knew to seek out answers, find doctors, and make a plan. I ended up having my surgery less than two weeks later (I ended up being Stage 3+) and starting chemotherapy about a month after that. Once we had more information and had a plan for getting through, we moved through it. This was just what we had to do.
So how could I turn this around? Make it a learning experience, an opportunity to connect with friends and family, a chance to find moments of insight and inspiration? When I knew I would likely lose my hair, I had a wig party, heading to the wig store with several friends to try on the new me (though I got a wig, I discovered early into my hair loss that I much preferred a simple baseball cap (I seem also to be blessed with a reasonably-shaped head and didn’t mind the bald look!)). When I got my chemo schedule, my friend created a sign-up for visitors, and each chemo session turned into a gab session with friends. When I had chemo on my daughter’s eighth birthday, she came with me to shave my head (right around when the hair loss was starting), sat with me during chemo, and then we went to see Wicked (our favorite musical). At my school (I was the Middle School Director at Dawson School at the time), families and faculty surrounded me with love and care – driving my kids to their various activities, walking my dog, and providing enough food to ensure that I would not have to cook for over six months. Students sent cards and wrote posters, and when I came back to work, threw an impromptu welcome back celebration. These moments are some of my all-time favorite memories.
I remember in the middle of all this, I came to two realizations at the same time. First, I decided that never again would I let myself be bogged down by small moments of negativity. Having faced a moment where I wasn’t sure whether I’d be alive in the next year, I did not want to waste my time stewing about minor setbacks or regretting past decisions. There is just not enough time.
The other realization I had was the importance of valuing the small moments in my life. We are all pretty good about focusing on big events – weddings, graduations, births, and other milestones. But what about taking the time to really enjoy a snuggle from my dog? Or to stop and wonder at the beauty of a glistening raindrop? These small moments of joy, beauty, and connection come together to make a life. And moments that involve connection with others are especially rich. We feel most alive when we feel connected to other people, and I look back at the moments my friends and family created for me with such joy.
Of course, both of these intentions are easier said than done, but I have let them guide me in my life for the last ten years. I have come to focus on the value of the journey more than the destination and have tried to face each challenge as an opportunity for growth. And I try to instill these intentions in our students. Compositive Primary is all about finding those small moments – moments of frustration that lead to knowledge, moments of connection that lead to budding friendships, and moments of pride in trying, failing, trying again, and finding a solution. These moments help our students develop into kind, curious, and resilient human beings.
For me, I, too, continue to draw inspiration from these intentions, and I’ve been drawn to endurance sports because they require that mentality. To that end, I’ve begun training for a 50-mile trail-running race in Leadville this summer. I figured that was the perfect way to celebrate being ten years out from my original diagnosis. I’ll just have to move through the pain and do my best to focus on the beauty surrounding me and the endorphins surging through me. I have no idea how long it will take or, in fact, if I will finish at all, but I will enjoy the journey!