There are few acts of bravery in this world that are greater than the bravery shown by a young mother diagnosed with cancer.
Brittany Carroll reminded me of that lesson this morning as we meandered around the back roads of southern Idaho searching for the border of Utah. Brittany is a breast cancer survivor who spent the morning trying to convince me that although Invasive Ductal Carcinoma is no fun, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with a husband and six kids is a real hoot.
Brittany is now two weeks out of treatment and her run this morning brought to a close what most people would describe as a very tough year. However, with only a mother’s optimism, Brittany is finishing what she describes as an “incredible blessing.”
It all started last August during one of those precious and fleeting moments of motherhood, when Brittany suddenly realized that all of the children in the house were safely occupied and she had enough time to actually take a shower and shave. As the steam built in the bathroom, she started to relax and her thoughts skipped away from her children for just a moment to her own mother.
Brittany’s mom, Lynn, had just finished 18 weeks of chemotherapy as part of an aggressive treatment plan for ovarian cancer. During Lynn’s treatment, Brittany had learned that four of her mother’s five aunts had died of either breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Brittany had never given cancer much thought and didn’t see these cases as anything more than an unfortunate coincidence. At the age of only 39, she was too young for a mammogram and as the mother of a blended family of six, she was too busy to worry about her future.
As she continued her shower, the sound of children getting ready for school floated in from the next room and Brittany decided to linger a moment longer in the heat and the steam. She turned the water a bit warmer as her thoughts returned to the children and to dinner.
And then she found it. Or did she? Surely it couldn’t be. But it was? No. It can’t be.
She turned off the water and returned to her busy world. Lunches were packed, collars straightened, hair combed, shirts tucked, rides arranged, kisses given…
When it was quiet again, she called her husband. And then her Doctor.
Two weeks later, after a series of inconveniences that included two consultations, a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, Brittany’s mother drove her back to the hospital to get the test results.
After Brittany’s mother parked the car, she turned and looked at her daughter in the passenger seat beside her.
Brittany said, “I just want to sit here for a moment before my life changes.” So Lynn, whose hair was just beginning to grow back, reached for her daughter’s hand and waited.
Thirty minutes later, Lynn cried softly as Brittany’s doctor reviewed the results. As tears streamed down Lynn’s cheek, Brittany put her arm around her and said, “We’re going to be okay Mom. We’re going to be just fine.”
By the time they got home, the crying was over. For good.
Brittany’s bilateral mastectomy was scheduled for October so she had a little time to figure out how to tell the children. The kids ranged from age 3 to 15, so a variety of tactics needed to be employed.
“I didn’t want them to be scared,” said Brittany. “So we looked for ways to make it fun.”
After her treatment plan was finalized, Brittany worked with the children to create a giant poster outlining the process and counting down the days until everything was back to normal. It looked a bit like an advent calendar, only with an ending that was even better than Christmas – a mom that was cancer free. The poster showed that there would be 8 weeks of the “Red Devil” (Adriamycin Chemotherapy), 18 weeks of Taxol, and 28 radiation treatments. To the children it looked like a lot of numbers and a long wait for a healthy mom, but their parents were so busy laughing and smiling that they couldn’t help but think it was going to be a great time.
Chemotherapy is always tough, and the “Red Devil” is about the worst. The drug gets its nickname from its ominous red color and side effects that are too unpleasant to list. Therefore, amidst the games and laughter, Brittany and her husband gently prepared their children for the difficult road ahead.
“It was important that they understand that it was going to be tough, but the most important thing was for them to know that you can get through tough things.” She said.
Two weeks into her first round of the Red Devil, Brittany began to loose her hair.
“I was in the shower and my hair started falling out in my hands,” she said. “So I jumped out of the shower, dried off, and pulled all the kids together in the kitchen.”
“We turned it into a big party,” she said. “The kids laughed and laughed. They took turns taking photographs as my husband went back and forth across my head with the clippers. They couldn’t believe that dad was shaving my head. Everyone thought it was so hilarious.”
After eight weeks on the Red Devil, Taxol seemed like a beach vacation, and by the time Brittany was scheduling her radiation, she began to feel like she might make it.
“Radiation was so relaxing for me,” she said. “It sounded like the footsteps of children running.”
Now, two weeks after her last radiation treatment, she was out carrying our baton on a 100-degree day in southern Idaho as our team attempts to pass the baton from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
“From the very beginning of this journey, I knew that there would be an opportunity for growth,” she said. “I didn’t know what or how, but I knew that I would grow.”
“Cancer has taught me to appreciate the small moments… like watching my children play when they don’t know I’m looking…or watching the way my son’s eyelashes hit his cheek…”
As she described her son’s eyelashes, she stopped talking; perhaps distracted by the image forming in her imagination. For that brief moment, the smile that endlessly stretches between her two ears straightened into a look of quiet contemplation.
So we sat together, savoring the memory of that moment.
Bravery usually lives in the eyes, but in this case, you have to watch the smile.