I remember the moment with perfect clarity. I had just been chatting on the phone with a college friend and was folding the laundry. The phone rang again. "Mrs. Mann, I'm afraid it was cancer."
The surgeon had thought the biopsy would prove to be benign; after all, I was only 35 years old and those kinds of lumps are common in young women. He was wrong. The rest is somewhat blurry. I remember motioning for my husband, Doug, to come to the phone. After we hung up, he and I clung to each other in shocked disbelief.
Our two young children, Andrew, 8, and Abby, 5, were already tucked into bed, safe in their oblivious slumber.
Major illness was something that our little family had been blessed to avoid before this diagnosis. Yes, we had faced a lot of challenges together as a family, including living in Albania as Christian missionaries during a period of anarchy and during the Kosovo War. But this challenge was at an entirely different level.
Doug and I were determined to keep our children's lives as stable and routine as possible. Our approach was that they should know enough to not be shocked by things they might overhear. But we also determined that they shouldn't be fearful. This could only be accomplished if we, as parents, remained hopeful, kept our faith and continued pursuing plans for my life.
My parenting became more intentional as Doug and I worked to shape the childrens' character and train them to become givers and not just takers in life. The year of cancer treatment and hospital visits provided an excellent opportunity for teaching compassion. During the Christmas season, Doug took Andrew and Abby to the hospital to hand out candy canes to chemotherapy patients. We taught them the invaluable lesson of being better able to identify with the weak and needy.
Our children coped wonderfully throughout the year of my treatment. Homework, play dates, school events -these all rolled on at a normal clip. My mother sagely told me, "Your children will watch how you handle difficulty and hardship. They will learn how to deal with life's bad times by observing your example." I kept my mother's words in mind as I ticked off each grueling session of chemotherapy.
Abby has always been a refined "girlie-girl' with an eye for pretty things. A pure compliment came one evening when she rubbed my head and said, "Mom, I'm getting used to your bald head, and it looks good." When my husband shaved his head in support, the children begged him to grow it out, saying that his hairless head didn't look nearly as nice as mine.
The other challenge we were working on when the cancer hit was the adoption of Elisheba Joy (Elly), a darling 4-year-old girl I had met while traveling to the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. Our nonprofit charity, Global Business Assist, conducts entrepreneurial training seminars in desperately needy regions.
Many adoption agencies close the door to adoption for prospective parents who have a cancer diagnosis, and others might say "wait five years." Doug pursued the matter with our agency, and its board granted us an exception based upon my excellent prognosis reports from two doctors.
Throughout everything, I was able to maintain a mostly normal routine at home, with enough energy to effectively parent, because of the standard of care I received. After initially evaluating numerous treatment options, I chose to receive treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, where treatment is provided for body, soul and spirit. Nutrition, exercise and conventional chemotherapy and radiation medical treatments all played a role in my healing process. As I exercised regularly, I'd occasionally be surprised by what the mirror reflected back-a tough-looking, bald-headed, perspiring woman in exercise gear.
I have now been out of treatment and cancer free for more than four years. I'm determined to do more than just survive; I am determined to thrive. Thriving involves being truly grateful for each day and savoring the seemingly small things. I also don't hesitate to take on bigger challenges. I am reaching out to the world's needy by traveling to a mud and grass hut in Sudan with Global Business Assist. I use my training and skills as a certified public accountant to teach a business and accounting seminar to the Sudanese so they in turn can provide for their children and communities.
Yes, cancer has left its mark on my family. But its mark has not been a curse. We have all moved forward, strengthened by our relationships and the resolve to make our days meaningful-however many they may be.
Michelle Mann, her husband and three children live in Crystal Lake.