I met up with a friend today, the one that makes your life greater for being in it; that's her, my new friend Niki - Mom extraordinaire, a fabulous photographer in her own right, a sister to 4 brothers, a daughter, a wife, a friend and mom of two. She's 38, and one of those creative types that seem to splash the world with color and imagination everywhere she goes. When I first met her at a Christmas party a few weeks ago, I noticed her look: edgy, funky, could wear any hat and make it look fabulous. I mentioned how much I loved her shorty-short blonde hair and how few could pull it off, when I discovered HER STORY. Everyone has one, you know!
On January 3, 2011, life was cruising by and in a second it all changed. Those things that seemed to matter, everyday life, paying bills, juggling schedules all came to a screeching halt when doing a self-breast exam. Just flying back from a Caribbean vacation and in the best shape of her life, she found a lump the size of a small bb. After a mammogram and ultrasound, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma; it had spread to her lymph nodes.
After a long weekend of waiting for a diagnosis, feeling as though she couldn't wait another second, the doctor called. He was quiet upset to give her the report. Yet oddly enough, her first reaction was to comfort and encourage HIM! She explained there was nothing to worry about; it would all be ok.
The news was devastating. When trying to Google someone exactly like herself, who had gone through this very experience: a 37 year old mom of 2 with breast cancer - stage 2, she found only one person. At that moment, she set out on a mission to be an example to other women by documenting every aspect of her journey. From that moment on, she had a camera or video following her around, documenting the entire process.
Breast Cancer Statistics - Breastcancer.org
1) Cancer typically produces no symptoms when the tumor is small and treatable
2) The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms starting at 40 yrs of age / Encourages Self-Breast Exams
3) 226,870 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the U.S. are expected in 2012
4) Of those invasive cases, 85% will be ductal carcinoma
4) Treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, and/or hormone therapy
The Rush of Emotions Expected After Diagnosis
1) Niki fought moments of fear and anxiety. How could this be? At 37 she wasn't old enough to meet the minimum age requirement for annual mammograms.
2) What if she had not done a self exam? She was shocked how fast the stages of cancer had grown from Stage 2a to 2b in a matter of 2 weeks.
3) One minute you're encouraged and emotions are stable. The next you can be in a grocery store and have a panic attack, not able to breathe. The world closes in.
4) Anything can trigger it and you may not see it coming. Your life flashes before your very eyes, wondering how long you have to live, will you get a clean bill of health, will it creep its way back in and spread unknowingly.
Upon hearing the news, she began the next step, notifying her friends via Facebook. What would she say? She wrote and re-wrote it, erased and edited many versions, then simply wrote: "I HAVE BREAST CANCER." and pressed SEND. That's when it became real. When life felt dark. The peripheral became a blur. It was now time to stare the enemy in the face.
The Moment of Empowerment
She planned a "HAIR SHAVING" Party, after being assured by doctors that she would indeed loose all of her hair. She invited 50 of her closest friends and blasted Katy Perry's: "Fireworks" a song of empowerment, and donated her hair to "Locks of Love." The black and white still shots, documenting her journey were emotionally raw. With each click of the camera, out came strength, vulnerability, tears, fear, inspiration . . . with hands held high. She met it face to face and took back the power.
Her friends rallied and love came in the form of notes, food, flowers, prayers and personal conversations. Her son's football coach, parents and students made encouraging signs on Game Day, wearing pink wrist bands, socks and shoelaces to support the cause in her honor. They showed up . . . and they showed up big.
Her AH HA moment came after 6 months of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation, where she had gained weight from the medications, began loosing what little hair re-growth she had . . . hardly recognizing herself. She discovered that while on the outside, her appearance wasn't sexy and sassy as usual, she found a deeper place, where your soul comes to the forefront. Your looks don't define your core. They're just the marketing side of who you are.
Cancer doesn't define Niki, it's just a blip on the radar of her entire life. Like a tapestry, our lives are woven pictures, threads of ideas, stories filled with life's ups and downs to create a brilliant canvas of our life from beginning to end. This thread that found its way into her moment in time, created a platform for her to speak, share her story, empowering other women to walk through the storm. On her last day of radiation, the song "Fireworks" began to randomly play in the doctor's office. With tears and perseverance, her journey to the finish line had come full circle. In wrapping up our 3 hour conversation at the coffee shop, she looked down - and written on the wooden arm of her chair, read these words: "Logic will get you from A to Z; Imagination will get you Everywhere." Albert Einstein
Here's to embracing life when it strikes and imagining what it CAN and WILL be - a platform to share our Tapestry of Life with those around us.