Polly: It Takes a Community
On April 1st, 2010, at the age of 50, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and it was no April Fool's joke. Just weeks after my annual mammogram and breast exam proved normal, I detected a lump and an ultrasound identified two very large tumors and five affected lymph nodes. The cancer had already spread throughout my liver with over twenty lesions, making it Stage 4.
As the mother of two boys, a daughter and son-in-law, and a wife I was grief-stricken. My husband tragically lost his previous wife to a brain tumor when our eldest son was just seven months old. How could such lightning strike the same family twice? My dedicated oncologist immediately started me on systemic chemotherapy, and for nine months the tumors shrank considerably and most disappeared. Since January 2011, I have been on hormone treatment, and stability has been ongoing. Although I never forget for a moment the uncertainty with which I am living, I am so thankful to be carrying on almost just as before, as a busy mother, teacher, and curator, with the recent gifts of a grandson, great-nephew and great-niece!
Everyone in the metastatic breast cancer community has a powerful story. I share mine to offer hope and to inspire ways to move forward despite difficult odds. I have derived enormous strength and healing from the embrace of a circle of friends and loved ones, reminding my family that we are not making this journey alone. In African cultures where I work, illness belongs to an entire community. When one person is sick, everyone heals together. The concept of illness as something to be shared and addressed as a community drew me to MBCN.
A second source of sustenance has been the role of my work as I try to lead as "normal" a life as possible with my family. In Senegal, where my husband and I have studied art and spirituality for 18 years, work is considered to be sacred, helping people to cope with life's challenges. Cancer has taught me that both the work of teaching and healing are about mediating peoples' experiences of adversity and resilience. Through MBCN, members can find purpose and solidarity as a community that works together.
Finally, what empowers me every single day is my love for my children and husband, and the courage and conviction they bestow upon me. They are my greatest pride and joy, and my most ardent hope is to be here with and for them, to see them thrive. Added to this are my beloved parents and siblings, nieces and nephews, students and closest friends. My oncologist emboldens me with every visit, and my cancer counselor enables me to view this devastating detour as an opening to meaning and insight. Since my diagnosis, I have been committed to live as well and long as possible with my cancer: I call this my Manifesto. Every day I wake up and remind myself that I'm here and absolutely determined to be here, for every second of "now" is a blessing.
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