Nothing prepares you for this. We read books in college to gain knowledge about our major. We read to prepare ourselves for marriage. I read more books than necessary to prepare for motherhood. Months were spent planning, decorating and getting every last detail in place.
We welcomed our first child, Ava Suzanna, in January 2010. I was 27 and married to Justin, the absolute love of my life. I was more excited than nervous. It felt natural. I was prepared.
But not for this. Not this road. Other people walk down this road. Not me.
After seven months of intense fatigue that no amount of napping could seize, a nagging pain in my hip and rib and waking up with sweat-soaked clothing, I finally went to the doctor. Just for a check up. I planned to ask him about a prescription for Vicodin, as if it was normal to need a drug every day to ease my pain.
After a physical exam, he sat in his chair and asked me, “How long have you had that lump in your neck?”
I grabbed my neck. “What lump?” He showed it to me. “I would like you to see an endocrinologist. I think the problem might be your thyroid.” He seemed calm, so I was calm.
Two days later I was alone in a waiting room because I wasn’t worried. My husband stayed home because he had no reason to worry either. But when the endocrinologist decided to schedule an ultrasound, I went home to get him.
As we drove back to the doctor’s office he asked, “Are you worried?”
The technician did an ultrasound on my neck and told me pleasantly and kindly, “It is not your thyroid.” At the time, this seemed like good news.
Soon after we returned home, the phone rang and doctors asked if we could go back to the hospital for a chest X-ray. We got back in the car and Justin asked me again, “Are you worried, Libby?”
“He is just being thorough, babe. I am sure everything is fine.”
They took an X-ray and we left. A fed Ava her first solid foods that day. My sweet 7-month-old baby. The phone rang. My calm doctor said, “Libby, no rush but could you and your husband come to my office at 5 p.m. today?” It was 4:30. I dropped the phone and tears came fast and hard. This time all three of us went. I knew it couldn’t possibly be good news, so I wanted us to be together.
As we drove, we called a few family members and told them a bit about what had transpired from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on that seemingly ordinary Monday in July. I sat down and waited as Justin paced the waiting room. The room was empty Just us. My husband was scared. I could feel it. Ava was content in her car seat as I casually flipped through a magazine like I always did.
We were called back to his office. This is when it all became a blur. We sat at a long table. The doctor, me and Justin. Ava was in her car seat on the ground. He opened up his laptop to show us the results from the X-ray and ultrasound. I had no idea what we were looking at, what was normal versus abnormal. But I knew it didn't look quite right.
The pictures made my chest look like it had a covering, a blanket of round blurry dark shadows.
“Based on my expertise, along with those who read your X-ray and ultrasound, you have lymphoma.”
I remember looking to Justin to give me something. Our eyes locked.
I need some clarification. “What is lymphoma?”
It wasn’t about a grandmother or a friend’s cousin. It was me. My body. My chest. My neck. I was the one with cancer. I had been walking around. Living my life. Nursing my baby. Being a mom and a wife and a friend—and cancer was inside of me. Rapidly growing without my knowledge or permission. It was surreal. Numbing, but not dramatic. Not for us. There were tears, but just the slow kind that trickled down my face, not the wet streaming kind. Simple, genuine shock with a million questions and thoughts, but nothing was said. All I knew was someone just told me I had cancer and I had no idea what that meant.
But I was Justin’s wife. Ava’s mom. What did this mean for him? Her? Our future? I didn’t know where to begin. I quickly took Ava out of her seat so I could feel her little body. Hold her innocence.
Would someone else raise her? Would she ever know me? That was not something I could say out loud. Not yet. It was too shocking. Too real. Too scary. Too many unknowns.
So I rallied. I found strength I didn’t know existed on this earth, let alone inside me, because I was numb. It was if there was an overload between my heart and my head and I simply had nothing to say. This could not possibly be my life...could it?
As we walked out to our car, it was hot and the sun was still bright. Justin carried Ava. Oddly, I felt at peace. I am sure it was a combination of fear and utter disbelief, but it covered me. Every inch of me.
I looked at my husband from the other side of the car and one of us (I can’t remember which) said, “We got this. If we glorify the Lord with my cancer...He is going to do something big with it.”
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Jesus Christ. (Philippians 4:7)
Life was a whirlwind of phone calls. For days, we talked to family, friends, nurses and doctors. Told our story over and over—a story I wasn’t even sure belonged to us. After appointments, scans and biopsies, we found out it was stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer was in my neck, chest, tenth rib and hip socket. We began chemotherapy at the end of August, and endured a total of 12 treatments every other Thursday for six months.
The instant I was told I had cancer everything changed. The love I thought I had was no more. Instead, it became deeper and richer than I ever know it could.
I was scared. But mostly I was in “go mode”. I did what I had to do and I suprised myself. Within days of my diagnosis, I understood what it meant to trust the Lord with my life. To give Him my life. He was in control of my story. In the midst of fear and anger and tears, I trusted the Lord and His plan for me, Justin and sweet little Ava.
I selfishly told myself that Justin would be OK without me. What a ridiculous thought. My passionate, funny, husband whom I fell in love with the second I saw him. Those eyes of his wrecked me. He walked right alongside me and entered into my pain, fear, sorrow and glimpses of joy. We were never alone.
And what about Ava? Who could raise her like me? Instead of being her Mom, I would be part of a story someone told her. Pictures she looked at. Not even a memory, just a story. People would tell her things like, “You have your Mommy’s lips of her laugh.” The mere thought of it broke me.
Nothing prepared me for this. No books. No education. Nothing. My life was not my own and I found peace in that. There was nothing I could do to take the cancer away. I rested in the Lord and we did whatever we needed to get well.
I am thankful for my cancer. I am thankful for the opportunity it gave me to grow, evolve and change. I am not the same. We are not the same. We faced the possibility of death and came out on the other side a bit weary and broken, but ultimately stronger and more in love as a family and as followers of Jesus Christ.
This piece was originally published in our print issue Flow.