“I don’t want the world to see me, ‘cause I don’t think
they’d understand. When everything’s made to be broken,
I just want you to know who I am.”
— Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”
Screaming in silence, I felt my world collapse around me when I heard those four words, “you have breast cancer”. I felt everything tilt around me, spinning, like a mad merry-o-round. I felt gripped by fear. I was 32-years old. I was just starting to live. After fleeing my home country of Liberia when I was 15 years old, with just one suitcase, my family and I had lost everything. I had worked hard for 17 years to build a new life. I finally had the job, the salary, the house, car, a partner and a beautiful three year old. In that moment I felt my dreams disintegrate around me.
After a mammogram and a failed aspiration, my doctor told me that the lump wasn’t cancer. “You’re too young,” she said. “Come back in six months.” Over six months, I started to feel increasingly exhausted and I was having night sweats. I also noticed that the lump was growing. I scheduled another appointment. The doctor insisted that nothing was wrong with me. The next day at 4:45 p.m., she called to give me the news.
Over the next few months, I had to learn the language that all women diagnosed with breast cancer come to learn. I learned about blood draws, Elston scores, staging, receptors, estrogen levels, treatment types, pre-medication names. I thought that the worst of it would be the breast cancer diagnosis, but the third day after my lumpectomy, my fiance’ called to tell me that he couldn’t deal with this cancer thing. He wanted out.
I never thought I would beg someone to stay with me, but I heard myself say, “please don’t leave me.” I was so afraid of going through cancer alone. After we hung up, I sat on the stairs looking out the window. I felt so empty and alone. I couldn’t do this by myself. I wasn’t strong enough to do it all — to deal with the doctors, the chemo, the decisions, the house, bills, work, and taking care of a three year old child.
As soon as I had healed from the surgery, I began chemotherapy. I was sure that I’d be the only woman who had chemo and who wouldn’t lose her hair. I would use my powers of positive thinking to will it from happening to me. After my second treatment, I began to see hair on my shirts and pillows. I guess my powers weren’t so magical anymore. As my hair fell, I felt my body get weaker and weaker. The weight peeled off, and I watched the promotion I had worked for slip through my grasp. After my second chemotherapy, I found myself hospitalized. As soon as I could think clearly, my mother told me that I was going to live with her. I felt lost. Everything that defined me as a woman was falling away — my hair, breast, the shape of my body. My career was falling apart, I had lost my fiance’, my home; my heart and my spirit were broken and I felt as if I was sinking into an abyss. I lost hope — the only thing that kept me going forward was my little muse.
I went to work when I could, but following my treatment, I spent hours in bed, with the trash basket close by, fighting the nausea and then throwing up. I thought it would never stop. I’d throw up and cry, cry and throw up, sleep, eat, then do it all over again.
After four months, it occurred to me that I could continue to feel like a victim, or I could look for the blessing in all of this. One night I had a talk with God. I made a promise that if he restored my soul, I would give my life in service. The next morning when I woke, I was a different person. I now saw the world as if through a different set of eyes. It occurred to me that I had spent so much time looking at me and “my” cancer, that I had not given thought to others, and other young women going through the same thing that was happening to me. I needed to take up the charge to make a difference. The rest of my life would be spent doing just that — serving others and feeling blessed.
I founded the Tigerlily Foundation, to educate, advocate for, empower and support young women — before, during and after breast cancer. I was still in chemotherapy and had no funding, nor any idea how to begin or run a foundation, but I had made a promise to God. He had delivered on his promise and now I had to keep my side of the agreement. I knew that I could not wait until I got better to start doing the work that lay before me, so I started doing something every day to build the organization and to serve others. Looking back, I know now that whether I had lived or died, in serving others was where I found my healing, because in giving to others, I forgot my own challenges and pain; and in their place, gained joy and friendships. The joy of giving love to others was much bigger than looking at myself and asking “why me”. I felt blessed that this experience has awakened me, because before my diagnosis, I had been living “dead”, as many of us do, disconnected from our true selves and cut off from the very thing that keeps us breathing — our connection to the powerful spirit form, from which we came.
Each of us is born with a pure connection to God. As we grow in the world and in our attachment to earthly things, that connection weakens and is sometimes broken. Life sends us signs to awaken us, but often, we ignore the little signs, until something big happens, to awaken us to the realization that life is for the living — today, and to remind us that every moment is a gift if we choose to accept it.
Breast cancer forced me to see the truths and the pretense — and forced me to really see myself for the first time. It gave me a deeper appreciation for who I was and in many ways, allowed me to love myself and others in a way I’d never had. I now know that life is in the journey and in the living of it; it is as much in the misses as the hits and in the failures as the successes. There is as much to be learned from the falling down as in the getting up and more to learn from imperfection than from getting it right every time. As I looked death in the face, I made up my mind that I would live every day as if it were my last. I look back on the time before my diagnosis, when I held back from fully loving, and I know today that love is free, so I give as much of it away as I can every day. Love is not just something you say, but something you do, so I live it actively. I know now that happiness is a choice and a state of being, not something you’ll be when you get someplace else. So I choose, and want to inspire you to choose, to find joy in every moment.
Breast cancer gave me clarity and a single-minded focus I’d never had. My perspective is crystal clear. My faith is unfettered, and my belief in my destiny is unshakeable. As I wrote this article, I sat back and reflected on the past six years. The desperate, defiant promise I had made to God, Tigerlily Foundation has now grown into a national organization, offering peer support, buddy bags, meals, financial assistance and other programs to improve the quality of life for young women. In the Fall of 2012, I wrote my memoir, Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer, to share my challenges, growth and transformation.
Life is not promised to us forever, but as long as we are alive, we have to find joy in every moment. We need to be fearless in the quest for our own personal truth. Life will bring its challenges, but there is always a golden nugget in each one. It could be a deepening knowledge of oneself and learning that you’re stronger than you thought, or it could be that God is teaching you grace in a way you never expected. My hope is that every woman — whether diagnosed with breast cancer or not, finds her truths, creates joy and allows her challenges to form within her incredible inner strength; and that each of you faces life in a way that you are not broken by circumstances, but that you bend and grow through it all.