By Heather Bonynge
Eight years ago today, I was told three words that changed my life forever: “You have cancer.”
I didn’t know how to react in the moment I was told I had cancer. None of us did. My husband left work without telling them where he was going. I went upstairs and stood outside my daughter’s bedroom and just watched her nap. I felt like I was part of a movie that was on pause. All I could focus on in that moment was that little girl sleeping in front of me, the immense love and joy I felt for her, and how at that point I didn’t know if I would be around long enough to watch her grow up.
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When my husband arrived home from work, I met him at the bottom of the stairs. He embraced me and for the first time since receiving the news, I let myself cry.
Shortly afterwards, we made our way with Brynn to my parents’ house. The visit wasn’t unusual because my older sister and her husband were visiting from Alberta. The news that I had cancer, though, was completely unexpected. I hadn’t even told any of them that I was being tested for cancer.
We were sitting in my parent’s living room, and although I can’t remember the conversations leading up to my news, I can remember the exact placement of the furniture, the dim lighting in the room, and everyone’s faces as I told them I had cancer.
I have had a lot of time over the past eight years to think about the impact December 19, 2008 had on my life. It has been a long journey down the backside of a very steep mountain, but over time, I have come to accept my feelings surrounding this day through writing and sharing my experience with others.
For all the time I have spent reflecting on what this day means to me and how it changed my life, I have only just recently started to think about and realize the impact it may have had on those who are closest to me. Cancer does not just affect one person, it affects the entire family and support system.
December 19, 2008 was the day my life stood still and everything changed, and for the first time I am recognizing that my diagnosis and the significance of this day for me may have also affected those in my life who were in the direct line of fire alongside me.
I decided I wanted to ask them, and hear their thoughts and feelings on how this day impacted them. This is what they had to say:
From my mom:
How does a mother describe her innermost feelings when her 27-year-old daughter tells the family she has just been diagnosed with cancer? How could this be happening? She is too young and she has just had her first child. My mother died from cancer, my brother died from cancer, my aunt and uncle died from cancer; I cannot lose my youngest daughter to this dreaded disease!
I am not sure how I got through the rest of the day or the next six weeks while we waited for a decision from doctors about what to expect for treatment. I knew that I could not let her see how worried I was or how scared I was every time she went to the doctor. Luckily, Heather became stronger for me and together we helped one another in ways that are hard to describe.
From my dad:
Nothing in life can prepare you for a member of your immediate family announcing that they have been diagnosed with cancer. That pretty much describes the day it happened to us. I recall my wife going numb with shock and a lot of tears being shed by everyone in the room.
From my older brother:
When Heather asked me to write about the day we found out about her cancer, I realized how difficult it would be. Not emotionally difficult, but just difficult, because the truth is I don’t remember.
Eight years ago I lived in Nova Scotia. I had moved there for work. So when Heather told me about her diagnosis, it was over the phone. I don’t remember the phone call. I don’t remember how I felt.
My wife, Clarissa, tells me that she remembers things vividly. She came home from work that day. I was already there waiting for her. I stood at the door so that she saw me the moment she came in. She walked through the door, saw the look on my face, and asked me what was wrong. I pulled her in to hug her and told her about the diagnosis. We both broke into tears. Tears that I don’t remember.
From my sister:
There is a part of my life that I can’t remember.
In December, 2008 I was visiting family in my home province of Saskatchewan, six hours away from where I lived in Alberta with my husband and our two boys.
My parents and I were sitting in the living room of their old house, talking about the usual things, but beneath the pleasantries, I was feeling sad and uneasy. I had just seen my best friend, who had been battling cancer for the past few years, and I was struck by the suffering of her 32-year-old body; it looked like it could barely fight a cold, let alone cancer.
My sister arrived at the house with her infant daughter, my youngest niece. I was immediately taken with the baby and didn’t notice anything unusual in my sister’s expression. I do recall that her husband, my brother-in-law, seemed distant. My sister said she had something to tell all of us, and I feared for a second that the trip she and her husband were planning to his home country, South Africa, was about to be extended, and my little niece would be an entire continent away for longer than I had anticipated.
When the tone of my sister’s voice changed, I realized she was about to cry. I looked at my brother-in-law, who sat stone-faced. Absolutely nothing was coming to mind. They had just had a beautiful baby — their first. Everything seemed perfect. Then, my sister told us she had cancer. I looked at my niece, who was only a few months old, and wondered how this could be happening. My sister was young, and healthy.
In my mind, my sister’s cancer journey will forever be linked with my friend’s. It’s not how I would prefer it, but it’s how I remember it.
In having the opportunity to read my family’s impressions of the day I was told I had cancer, I was amazed to see how much of their feelings matched my own: numbness, uncertainty, shock, and fear. As I read further into to their stories, I was even more surprised to learn of the long term impact my diagnosis had on them and how it changed their lives as well. Both my siblings moved back to Saskatchewan shortly afterwards, and my mom took four months extended leave from work to take care of my daughter and me while I underwent treatments. My mother-in-law also put everything on hold to come to Canada to help us get through this. Cancer changed my life, but it also changed the lives of everyone close to me.
For the first five years after my diagnosis, December 19 was really hard. In the past few years, however, I have made steps to try and change my thinking around the meaning and undertone of the day from sadness and loss to joy and celebration. I take time for myself to reflect upon all the blessings in my life and celebrate those that I love. My family is a big part of that.
I feel so honoured that they took the time to open up and share their feelings. It is not an easy thing to do. Maybe just like me, this is the step they needed to help them reflect and process the impact that cancer has had on each of us. I know for me, it is another step in the journey, and I couldn’t think of a better group of people to walk along beside me. The celebration continues.
Live life on purpose.