As told to Francesca Halikias
I had always had heart issues. They found out when I was 19 that I had congenital heart defects, so it wasn’t a surprise for me to know that something was wrong with my heart—I just didn’t know to what extent.
It was May 31, 2018 that I was told I had an aortic aneurysm that needed open heart surgery. If I didn’t fix it, there was a chance that it would rupture and I’d bleed to death within minutes. Obviously, it was something urgent that I had to treat right away. I was trying to think about how I was going to deal with that and deal with telling my son [and] manage everything that I [was] doing because I [didn’t] have that much help. Being a single mom, you kind of just do it yourself.
On June 2, I had a mammogram. [It was] my routine mammogram [that I] had been doing for years, and they called me back and said they found something and that I should come back for a second look to make sure it wasn’t an error on their part. It was then that I found out I had stage III breast cancer.
I then went back and forth with my doctors on what [to] tackle first. I was scared to death that I was going to die of my heart rupturing or cancer [was] going to take me because breast cancer is very prevalent in my family. Both my mother and my mother’s mother had breast cancer. My mother is alive and well, my grandmother is not. It was quite a challenge.
Many doctors later, I ended up having to do heart surgery first. Then six months later, I had my double mastectomy and did the whole chemotherapy [treatment]. It was my son’s junior year of [high school] and it was a lot of conversations you want to have with a child when they’re maybe in their 30s or 40s, not when they’re 16.
I did not think I was going to come back. It was very difficult. I got divorced when [my son] was seven, so he and I have an unbelievable bond, and I truly feel [that] he is the reason I’m alive today.
He was extremely emotional, as was [I]. He tries to be the man of the house and has been since he was seven, and tries to take care of mom more than mom takes care of him. He had to learn how to grow up pretty quickly, and I sometimes feel like I stole his childhood because he couldn’t be a kid. He had to witness his mom super weak, and as soon as I got a little bit of my strength back, I then was beat down and became bald and tiny, going through chemo and throwing up, so it made him really grow up and mature and appreciate every day. They say things happen for a reason and I truly think this taught us both how to appreciate every single day.
It’s crazy to think that [my cancer] was a while ago. It seems like it was yesterday. I used to be the kind of person that worried about everything whether it was in my control or not. Anything, even the slightest [thing], I was so dramatic [about] to the point [that I was] a living ball of stress 24/7. It’s good and it’s bad, but [my diagnoses] taught me to not be afraid to die. If I were to die tomorrow, I now live each day knowing, ‘OK, I could die tomorrow, so I might as well do A–Z today.’
When you are so close to death, and have something so major, you can never be the same person. I believe Jacob lives that way as well. He’s learned that life is precious and he doesn’t take things for granted and he’s very appreciative just as I am. We appreciate the changing colors in the fall and sunny days. The most silly things are the biggest things.
[What I went through] taught me how to be happier. You would think I would just be this horrible, miserable person, and I have those days where I hate myself and I hate everything but it’s taught me to just roll with the punches. Life is tough, but you just go with it and make what you want your day to be and that’s it.
I [was] introduced to mindfulness meditation and I did that for quite a while, and I feel everything is mind over matter at this point. Obviously, you can’t talk yourself out of having a congenital heart defect or cancer, but you can deal with it better than finding that out and thinking the absolute worst. I feel I definitely should have died, and I didn’t. Somebody said, ‘You can’t die yet.’ And now I need to live. I can’t dwell on the past, I now live, and look forward to [the future].
It’s really unfortunate that it took two major life-altering things to make me live this way. I try to tell people that you just have to live each day and appreciate small things, and the things that we think are so major—none of it really matters. You live your life to be happy, and live your life so that one day when you do pass, people can remember the good things about you—not being crabby, miserable [and] always under stress. It doesn’t get you anywhere, so it’s not worth it.
You just have to slow down and take each day as it comes. There is always tomorrow, and if there isn’t, you try to do the best you can for today.
My son is the reason I survived. I live each day being happy knowing he is happy, and that makes me continue to fight. I fight for him, and I fight for the future.