I have always been a grass-is-always-greener sort of gal. My mother likes to remind me that I was born with a fierce independent streak. I snatched the spoon out of her hands as soon as I could muster the dexterity. Along those same lines I couldn’t wait to get my own car, go off to college, move out on my own, get a job, buy a house, get married, etc. At each point in my life I knew that my life could be even better and all my problems would be solved if I just had [fill in the blank]. My mind was forever focused on the future.
As I approached my thirtieth birthday a few years ago I had a few big future plans already in the works. My husband was going to finish his PhD soon, we’d leave Washington, DC, finally move into a house that could fit all of our stuff, and start a family. It didn’t all have to happen in that order but I had finally begun craving the whole white picket fence thing and was ready to jump all in.
Life, as usual, had other plans. A few months before my 30th birthday I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that left me sick for much of the summer. Just as I was recovering from that, to add insult to immune system problems, I discovered a lump that turned out to be breast cancer.
It was early stage but aggressive and would require an intensive year of treatments, which ended up including 20 rounds of chemo, 33 rounds of radiation and a double mastectomy. In the midst of this poison, slash and burn routine my grass-is-greener mindset kicked into overdrive. Even when I put on a brave face and decided to strut around the city in high heels and a little black dress balder than the day I was born, I couldn’t wait to have a full head of hair again. Oh life with eyebrows! How sweet it would be! I created a countdown and gleefully ripped off treatment after treatment pining for the days when my stomach would settle, my body would feel strong again and my everything would stop hurting.
I found the lump on August 27, 2013 and had my final round of radiation on August 25, 2014. I spent the first half of the day celebrating and rejoicing in my new found freedom. As the day wore on, however, an unexpected pit grew in my stomach and by that evening I found myself sobbing to my husband. I was filled with fear for what was in front of me. Those supposedly greener pastures I had been waiting for all of a sudden seemed like scary, uncharted territory.
As long as I was in treatments I was safe. I was doing something. The problem was in someone else’s hands. Without treatments I was left alone to cross my fingers as tightly as I could in hopes it was enough to ward off a recurrence. My type of breast cancer, called triple negative, meant that a recurrence was twice as likely as in other breast cancers and that the first few years after treatment were the most dangerous. I just needed to survive the next three years and then my chance of recurrence would plummet and I’d be home free, my doctors had told me. But I didn’t know what survival was supposed to look like in this post-cancer place. I couldn’t go back to the way my life was before. That life and that person were forever gone. I had to build something new in the midst of a mountain of fear.
Lucky for me I was signed up to go on my First Descents trip just two weeks after my treatments ended. I spent the week rock climbing on the bright orange rocks of Utah with a bunch of badass cancer fighters just like me. One thing, among many, that I learned on those rocks was not just how to survive, but how to thrive and how to be truly present. You can try your best to make a plan for tackling each climb but once you’re up there you have no choice but to take it one foothold and one handhold at a time. You can’t worry about what obstacle may lay further up ahead. You’ve just got to keep pushing onward and upward. It was an incredible freedom to realize I didn’t have to spend my days being fearful of the future. I could just enjoy what was before me. Finally the grass I was standing on was looking pretty dang green.
I took these lessons in thriving to heart and decided to make the most of the last few months of one of the worst years of my life. After rock climbing in September I went to Italy, for work in October and got lost on the streets of Rome where I cheated on my vegan diet with cappuccinos, pizzas and gelato. In November I went to South Africa for a conference and tacked on an extra week in Cape Town where I went snorkeling with seals, diving with great white sharks, and experienced the most breathtaking views of my life hiking and rocking climbing up Table Mountain. In December I went on vacation to Mexico where I chased sea turtles around our little bay, snorkeled through the dark in an underwater cave and toured one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I was out living it as loudly as I could and refusing to let cancer have the last word on my life.
Then in January, on the drive back to DC from visiting our families for the holidays in Michigan, I found it. The car in front of us slammed on their breaks and when my husband did the same the seat belt dug into my clavicle. When I went to rub the aching spot I found a lump just beneath my clavicle on the same side I’d had breast cancer. My heart stopped, my world shattered into a million pieces and I knew in my immediately that the cancer was back. Buckets of tears, heartbreaking worry, 5 doctors’ appointments and 4 tests later and my greatest fears were confirmed. I had advanced stage metastatic breast cancer. As I started talking to doctors and getting 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th opinions I began to hear phrases like, “incurable,” “life-extending treatment,” “chemo-resistant,” “radiation-resistant,” and “palliative options,” tossed out with too much ease for the incredible weight of their connotation. It became clear that all of these doctors assumed my days were numbered.
All of a sudden the expert in greener pastures had run out of pastures. It was as if I had drawn my entire life out on a great chalkboard full of hopes and expectations for the future and someone had come along and erased every day after today. When I did dare to imagine my future all I could see was more bad-news test results, more treatment, more pain and eventually having to find a way to say good-bye to everyone I loved. When I thought about my past I just felt sad for what I had already been through and for that girl who yet again didn’t know what she had coming to her.
But spirits are tough to break and after several difficult weeks I finally came to a conclusion that helped me piece mine back together. All I had to do was be here… right now. This moment, right now, became my refuge. In this moment I am alive. I feel healthy. I feel vibrant. I can see and hear and smell and walk and talk and think. I am not the sad story my doctors want to tell. I am not cancer. I am just a girl living her life. This moment is the only thing that is guaranteed and this is where I had to live. No more pining for a brighter future. This moment could be my bright spot.
Since then I have found a doctor who has some unconventional but proven and promising treatments for me. And while I will always and forever remain hopeful that I have a long, full life ahead of me I am also busy enjoying what I’ve got right now. Despite my diagnosis, my daily pill regimen that would put your grandmother to shame, and a lingering fear that every so often leaves me convinced I’ve got cancer in my elbow or my big toe, I love my life. I still make plans, still get excited about tomorrow, but I also make sure that I am enjoying what is right in front of me for however long I’ve got it. When you stop assuming you’ve got a lifetime of summers to take the trip you’ve always wanted, thousands of days left to spend with the ones you love and millions of moments to get around to being happy you realize how important today is. You understand that if you want to go out live it you better get started…right now.
KATIE (CRUSH) CAMPBELL IS ORIGINALLY FROM MICHIGAN AND CURRENTLY LIVES WITH HER PARTNER, HER DOG AND HER CAT IN WASHINGTON, DC. BY DAY SHE WORKS ON INTERNATIONAL FOOD POLICY AT ACTIONAID USA WHICH GIVES HER THE OPPORTUNITY TO TRAVEL ALL OVER THE WORLD. BY NIGHT AND ON THE WEEKENDS CRUSH CAN BE FOUND IN HER LOCAL CLIMBING GYM, BIKING, HIKING OR CAMPING WITH FRIENDS, PLAYING AROUND WITH ONE OF HER MANY CAMERAS OR WHIPPING UP A DELICIOUS VEGAN MEAL.