Last week, on November 2, 2022, I celebrated my first Cancerversary. One full year of life since finishing the trifecta of mastectomy, chemo, and radiation.
If you’re new here and unfamiliar with the story of how my cancery booby-doos tried to kill me, please explore the other posts on my blog. There you will learn how a baseline mammogram (and a fellow warrior’s insistence) saved my life. You can be asymptomatic, without a family history, under 40 years old, and STILL find your breast cancer through a preventive screening that many doctors say is unnecessary until 40 (an age I wouldn’t have seen). You will also learn about the changes I’ve made after better understanding how young-ish folks like myself can end up with environmental cancers.
But as I reflect on everything that’s happened in the last two years, not just cancer but also losing my precious mom, the things I most want to share are the ways in which these trials have taught me to view things differently.
I always struggle a little with imposter syndrome when I write about my journey. Lots of folks battle cancer. My struggles seem microscopic compared to the insanely unfair hands so many are dealt.
But still yet, I feel this pressing need to tell my not-so-extraordinary story. My personal belief is that God is nudging me to share, and who am I to tell God what’s up? So here we go again…
Do you all remember the Goo Goo Dolls and how much people loved them in the 90’s? Well, I was one of those people. I am actually still one of those people, and I make nary an apology about it. And if you’re wondering what a Goo Goo Doll is, I am a nicer person since beating cancer, so I guess I forgive you.
I can be going about my day doing all the normal adult-y things, but honey, when Alexa starts playing “Iris,” I am 14 again. I’m instantly transported back to 1998 where I’m sitting on wildly uncomfortable, inflatable furniture, scream-singing those lyrics with an intensity which can only come from an angsty middle schooler.
And that line…
“When everything feels like the movies, yeah you’re pleased just to know you’re alive.”
Now when I sang that song back then, I’m sure I was glorifying an awkward exchange I had in pre-algebra with some cute, blonde fella. And middle schoolers gonna do what middle schoolers gonna do.
But man, I wish I could just wrap adolescent Summer in a big bear hug and tell her so, SO much.
Things like, “For the love of all that’s holy, quit overplucking your brows and eat some flippin’ vegetables every now and then, sis.”
But also, “You don’t need their love, Summie. Not that boy’s or those friends’. You are enough, and you can’t get this back. Right now is ENOUGH.”
I swear from as early as I can remember, I was impatiently hurrying time along, waiting to check the next thing off the list:
Find love. Graduate college. Get a job. Get married. Buy a house. Have babies.
The next vacation. The next holiday. The next purchase. The next project. Check, check, check.
I lived my first thirty-six years with one foot in the now and the other already landing in the future.
But then, cancer.
When you think you may die (and soon), when you are forced to envision a world for your husband and kids in which you no longer exist, something shifts. Despite the fact I made the most aggressive and informed choices in my treatment, there is still a chance my cancer will one day return. Around 30% of all breast cancer will return as incurable, metastatic disease.
And I obviously pray every day that I’m here as long as my kids need me, and I really am hopeful I’ll die a grouchy, old lady who bosses everyone around and watches way too many soap operas.
I’m hopeful, but the thought lingers.
When I became a mother, I knew exactly what kind of childhood I wanted to give my babies. I wanted to provide them with something different. I’m saddened by a society where we savor nothing, are constantly bewitched by our devices, and are so obsessed with how life looks on Instagram that we miss out on actually living.
So the question became: How do I raise kids in this tumultuous, productivity-and-image-obsessed world?
My dream was they would have the time and space to marvel at all of God‘s creation. I wanted them to read and learn about things they loved. I tried so hard to minimize all the rushing that the world tells us is required and show them how to instead live more intentionally.
But at the end of the day, I felt like a fraud.
I was modeling all of these things for my kids, but inside, I was short-circuiting. My mouth and hands were pointing out these amazing gifts all around us, but I was still only half there. While taking the time to pause and point out constellations in the night sky, I would simultaneously be worried that I forgot to floss their teeth, and pay that bill, and respond to that text, and I need to do better about making time to exercise tomorrow, and don’t forget about that appointment Thursday, and oh yeah, the library books are due…
Constantly overloaded, perpetually worried, and rarely awestruck by anything other than my babies, I couldn’t fully take in anything because my mind was on a constant loop of what needed to be done next.
After I finished treatment, I realized that I needed to practice what I was preaching. I needed to do more than create this life for my kids, I needed to create it for MYSELF. I started making more effort to keep both of my feet planted firmly in the here and now.
Living with the possibility of recurrence makes me often have thoughts like, “This may be the last beach trip I ever take with my family,” and “What if this is the last time I am able to take the kids trick-or-treating?”
And you know what? That could be true for every single one of us.
So again, I think of that lyric:
“When everything feels like the movies, yeah you’re pleased just to know you’re alive.”
I bet all of us can name a time when we were high on life, without help from any substance. A time when our every cell felt awakened by something awe-inspiring: standing by the ocean, worship music, seeing the Grand Canyon, laying eyes on a newborn baby. I bet you’d say it even felt like the movies.
But in reality, the majority of my days (and probably yours) are filled with mundane tasks like driving to work, folding laundry, taking out the trash, and feeding the dog. And NONE of that feels remotely cinematic.
But what cancer has given me is the realization that all of those unglamorous yet necessary things take up minutes. In fact, they take up almost ALL of our precious, numbered minutes.
And all the numbing we do with wine and mindless scrolling and online shopping wastes even more of them.
If we have this finite amount of time, how do we bring the beauty of living to the regular tasks that make up so much of our lives?
Now I would rather be reading on the beach, or dancing with friends, or really anything other than washing dishes, but if I can bring the same level of awareness to a load of dirty dishes that I can when music is coursing though my veins at a concert, then I’m living my minutes instead of trudging through them. And when I am able to see my moments as precious, passing minutes, it’s almost like I can feel God smiling that I’m finally figuring this thing out.
I am not a person who manages stress well. Hard no. Fail at it daily. My husband is nodding emphatically as he reads this. And fighting off the constant urge to prematurely step into the future is just so hard for me. I’m a serious work in progress.
But I’m telling you that this practice of mindfulness (as woo-woo as it sounds) has made the absolute biggest difference in my life. Oh, and obviously therapy. Because we need Jesus and a therapist, y’all.
I’m talking to you, friend, because everybody, yes, EVERYBODY’S got their stuff.
Now, I know it isn’t feasible to feel constantly present and grateful for every little thing. That’s also a lot of pressure and sounds absolutely exhausting.
And I also get that some level of preparedness is just smart. I’m a recovering planaholic, so I really do understand.
But also…this may be it.
So I am trying to notice it while I’m here, while it’s happening.
And I’ve found that when I notice my moments, I get better at noticing the people in them. I wrote a post a while back about the invisible monsters we all carry on our backs. Mindfulness has helped me find more empathy for others, especially for those who are really different than me.
In trying to make the most of this time I’ve been given, I say no to the things that are no longer for me and a resounding YES to the things that light me up.
When cancer muggles complain about aging and all that comes with it, I just want to body slam them Rick Flair style. I PRAY with desperation that I see all the years they’re dreading.
I used to scoff at platitudes like “The present is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.” 1998 Summer is rolling her big ole brown eyes at that one. But 2022 Summer is over here screaming, “It’s ALL a gift! Please God, please let me be so lucky as to have it.”
I look back on that middle schooler who so desperately wanted her life to be like the movies, and I realize I’m still that girl. I still want that, it’s just a much more simplistic version now.
And I want to appreciate the movie now, not when the credits are rolling.