On September 22, a 34-year-old woman—a new mom with a young child—calls her doctor for results of a biopsy. Nine months earlier she had surgery and very early, noninvasive breast cancer was found. She was told she was cured, so when she later found a lump in her armpit, she wasn’t too worried. She places the call from work, believing that all will be fine. Thoughtlessly, her doctor reads her pathology results: “You have metastatic carcinoma in your lymph nodes.” The woman collapses into a chair as the blood drains from her face. The devastating diagnosis is delivered with no explanation, no reassurance, no handholding. She hangs up and begins measuring her remaining lifespan in seconds. How short will cancer cut her life? Will her son lose his mother while he is young, as she lost hers at age 12? What will her treatment be like? She is scared, overwhelmed, and angry. Her cancer was cured—this shouldn’t be happening.
This is my letter to that young woman:
I know that you are terrified and you face an uncertain future. I want to console you and provide the reassurance and guidance that you need. These words are my heartfelt expression of love and a prophecy, if you will, of a brighter future.
I watch you tuck your son in bed at night and bravely smile as he looks up at you with trusting eyes. You will do everything you can to spare him from your pain and preserve his wonder, innocence, and well-being just a little longer. I ache for you as you pull out photos from a year ago; a new mother caressing the baby in your arms, before this cruel disease entered your life. It feels unbearable that you will never experience childbirth again. But you will eventually make peace with this profound loss. You will continue to parent your child, providing a steady hand, a strong moral compass, and all the love you have to give.
I won’t lie, the upcoming weeks, months, even years may feel like an uphill battle. You will face challenges, loneliness, stigma, gut-wrenching grief, life-changing surgeries. You will lose your breasts, your ovaries, your fertility, your hair, some friends, your confidence, and sometimes, your lunch. But one day you will regain your self worth. You will no longer feel like damaged goods. You will offer yourself wholly in love and friendship again and people will value what you have to offer. You will enjoy desire and intimacy again, and will appreciate the quiet whispered words of love, and the ecstatic shouts of unbridled passion.
You are suspended in the moment, an avalanche of decisions, research, statistics, and treatments threatening to bury you. You are paralyzed with the gravity of every choice and terrified of making the wrong decision. But know that you will fight with every ounce of your being, question your doctors, and exhaustively research all options. Try to trust yourself to choose. You have always been wise. Make the best decision you can and then embrace it with all your might.
I know right now the weight of your diagnosis and uncertainty grip you like a vise; even the simple act of breathing seems monumental. You hold your breath, as you wait for the next crisis or piece of bad news. But I promise you that one day you will breathe hope like oxygen; it will expand your lungs and buoy you with optimism. You are feeling joyless but you will know true happiness. You are feeling lost but you will find your way; and when you do, your light will shine so brightly that others will follow in your path and gain comfort and guidance from you.
Cancer will change you. It will shape you and set your course in directions you never have imagined. But in the end, it will not crush, consume, or destroy you.
I feel your pain. I feel for you. I am you. I was that 34-year-old women. It was 14 years ago today, September 22 that we received the callous news from our surgeon. The future, our future, is still uncertain, but no more than it is for everyone else. The present is rewarding, joyful, and satisfying. I know that you can’t hear me, the crescendo of fear is drowning out my voice. I know that you will spend days, weeks, months, years, perseverating on “what ifs.” I can’t give you back the hours and days wasted on anxiety. I can’t give you back the years you spent focused on your own pain, loss, sadness, and fear leaving you with nothing left to offer others. But I can celebrate that in time you managed to move beyond it and reclaim the meaningful relationships and rich life that you so deeply deserve. Your struggles have brought us to where we are today. We have learned to look forward positively, and sometimes when I am still, I can imagine myself in another 14 years—a slower, older, wiser Sue at age 62—whispering to me from the future as I whisper back to you. ‘Be confident’ she says, ‘continue to believe, hope, trust, inspire, guide, love, and most importantly, live your life to the fullest!’”
Note: None of us are equipped with a crystal ball. Without time travel we can’t get a reassuring visit from our future self. Long-term survivors like me who are fortunate enough to have lived long past our diagnosis can’t go back and visit our past. If it had been possible, this is the letter I would have sent myself. These were the words that I needed to see and believe all those years ago. I share my fantasy letter to inspire hope in newly diagnosed women and those currently battling cancer.