In a lot of ways, I'm like many 26-year-old women. I've been married for about a year. I have a job that I love at a nonprofit fund-raising organization. I want kids and a dog (not necessarily in that order). But there is one big difference between me and you: I know how I'm going to die.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Like most breast cancer stories, mine started with a lump. I noticed it while I was taking a shower my senior year in college at Boston University. When I went to the doctor for my annual exam a few weeks later, she assured me that since I had no history of cancer in the family and because I was so young, it was probably nothing.
Six months later, the "nothing" lump was tender to the touch, I was sleeping 20 hours a day, and when my family came in town for my college graduation, my mother took one look at me and knew something was wrong. I finally told her about the lump (that I had been trying to pretend didn't exist), and instead of attending fun graduation parties with my friends, I was undergoing a battery of tests that all pointed to one conclusion: stage IV metastatic breast cancer. "Metastatic" meaning that the cancer was so aggressive, it had already moved to an outlying organ -- in my case, my liver.
In an instant, my entire life had changed forever.
I wavered between being in denial and crying at the unfairness of it all. It's not that I didn't want to die; it was that I wanted to live fully. But, instead, the few months my doctors thought I had left on Earth would be filled with chemotherapy, radiation and drugs. "Incurable" was the word that rang in my ears. Doctors would do everything they could to keep the cancer at bay, but it was a battle I would be waging for the rest of my life. Which suddenly didn't seem like a big stretch of time.
But "the rest of my life" hasn't turned out as short as doctors first suspected. It's not easy -- I have chemo on lunch breaks, when I'd rather be catching up with friends over a Cobb salad. I take six pills a day, and every three months I undergo scans to check in on the cancer: Has it grown? Are the drugs that I take working? I've learned to live my life in three-month increments, but the key is this: In the past five years, I've learned to live my life.
I got married. Which is unreal, considering doctors weren't sure if I'd be around four years after my diagnosis, much less able to walk down the aisle. And even more unreal when you consider that Alex and I had only been dating for six months when I found out I had cancer. But we were in love, and he says it was never a question whether he would stick by me. He's been true to his word, and he's the bravest man I know. We tied the knot six months after he proposed to me on stretch of deserted beach in Maine. No long engagement for me -- I didn't want to wait.
I don't get wrapped up in little stuff or surround myself with people who thrive on drama (which I have enough of with the cancer). I know that the most important things in life are family, friends and how well you love and are loved -- not how good you are at your job. I take joy in small victories, like being able to drive myself to the grocery store on tough days, and revel in large milestones, like honeymooning in Spain with Alex or visiting London with my mother.
I've also found strength in numbers. And being with others who are going through the same thing I am. Recently I attended the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Conference, and was blown away by the experience. This organization has offered me so much hope and support. They gave me the knowledge and courage to enroll in a clinical trial and led me to other young stage IV patients. While staring down death, it helps to know that I am never alone on this journey.
Sure, there are days when my rose-colored glasses aren't so rosy. I grieve the innocence that I no longer have; I can be outrageously jealous of things that my healthy friends can do without a second thought (like run a triathlon); and on my darkest days I can spiral into a devastating game of "what if." (What if I had the lump tested when I first found it? What if I had eaten better or exercised more as a teenager? What if I had slowed down and stressed less in college?)
But I always circle back to my universal truth: Life is hard. Everyone has burdens, and cancer is mine. I'm not afraid of death, because even though I know how I'm going to die, I don't know when. So I take my life one day at a time -- and appreciate every second of it.
To learn more about Bridget, follow her blog, My Big Girl Pants. To learn more about metastatic breast cancer, check out Living Beyond Breast Cancer.
This story was written by Colleen Oakley, as told to her by Bridget Spence. Colleen is a freelance writer who now takes life a little less for granted after meeting Bridget.