One year ago today, I rolled over in bed and thought, “Why does it feel uncomfortable to lay like this?” A quick inspection yielded a large lump and a sinking feeling. I immediately called my primary care doctor, who saw me that same day. He assured me that I had no risk factors for cancer, but just for peace of mind sent me up to the hospital for a mammogram.
As I am not yet 40, this was my first experience being manhandled into the machine and sitting in the waiting room decorated with pink ribbons. Soon after finishing the procedure, a nurse came to retrieve me with a concerned look on her face. She told me the doctor was going to need more imaging and would want to speak with me. It was cancer.
The next few weeks I had biopsies, MRIs, PET scans, bloodwork, and met with countless doctors. It was surreal. Often as I laid on the cold tables, waiting through a test or procedure, I thought, “What am I doing here?” Cancer was what happened to other people.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and the prescribed treatment was to poison me, cut me open, and then burn me. I lost my hair, received countless scars and was tattooed. I joked I was one motorcycle and pair of leather pants short of completing the look.
This year has given us memorable moments and scary setbacks.
I was worried how my kids would react to my baldness, especially my youngest son. As soon as my husband finished shaving my head, I called my son in to see it. I wanted him to know I was OK. He stared at me for a few minutes, then silently left the room. I heard him go to my daughter’s room and burst out, “Mom shaved her head! I thought only boys did that — our mom is really talented!”
After surgery, I seemed to be recovering well. But one night I felt as though I was coming down with the flu. I was restless and shaking. I decided to get up and as I made my way downstairs, I realized something was terribly wrong. The last thing I remember was yelling for my husband.
I woke to find myself in my husband’s arms, my curious children gathered around me as he finished with the 911 operator. I have served on our city council for the past six years and know many of our first responders. I was equal parts grateful and embarrassed as they carefully loaded me into the ambulance.
Over the past year, I found support from my family, friends, community, work, and in unexpected places. One day I was walking in downtown Salt Lake City wearing a headscarf. All of a sudden, I heard someone yelling. A man who appeared to be homeless pointed at my head and yelled, “Hey lady! You got this and I’m praying for you!” I was so touched to be noticed.
We have had angels in our lives who brought meals, sat with me through chemo, mowed our lawn, and expressed their love in countless ways. The doctors, nurses and other patients buoyed us up. We have laughed, and we have cried.
After nine months of treatment, my last scan came back clear. The best words I have ever heard were when my doctor said, “No evidence of cancer.” It felt as equally surreal as being diagnosed.
I spent many nights awake in bed worrying I would not get to see my kids grow up. Thinking of all the things I would miss in their lives. I wondered, am I spending my time on things that matter? Am I looking at my kids more than my phone? Am I making life better for those around me?
I know that my experience was not unique — while I had cancer, others dealt with long-term illnesses and unspeakable tragedies. Moments that will forever define their lives.
There is still much I do not understand. I do not know why some of us are given the gift of more time, and others are not. But I do know this: As long as I get to live, I am going to keep asking myself, “What am I doing here?”
Karen Peterson is the deputy education advisor to Governor Herbert, a Clinton city councilwoman, and a cancer survivor.