At 32, I embarked on a second career—I love kids and was meant to be a teacher, so I got my master’s in education. That same year my son Parker was born, so I finished my classes online with a baby in tow.
Juggling the two wouldn’t be easy under any circumstances, but ours was particularly tough: Parker has hemophilia, which means he can bleed spontaneously and internally. Falls, broken bones, and even going to the dentist can be concerning. I have to give him intravenous injections. When Parker was two, we found ourselves in the E.R.—except this trip wasn’t for him; it was for me. I was faint and dizzy, and had an immense feeling of malaise.
A chest X-ray revealed a mass on my lung. I knew instantly it was cancer.
I saw a pulmonologist who wanted to take a wait-and-see approach. No way, I thought. I wanted the mass out. As the parent of someone with a bleeding disorder, you learn how to advocate for yourself. My doctor ordered a PET scan and there was good news: My mass didn’t appear to be cancerous. We scheduled another scan for six months later just to be sure.
“The pulmonologist left me a message with the results. I didn’t listen to it for two weeks.”
By the time I got that second scan, I’d started teaching. The pulmonologist left me a message with the results. I didn’t listen to it for two weeks. When I finally did, I learned that my mass had grown and I needed to have surgery to remove it. I was scared to death—I had a three-year-old son with health issues. I needed to be there for him.
When my surgeon opened me up, he didn’t know what he was seeing. The mass was like jelly. He sent it out to another clinic, and a week later I found out it was an extremely rare type of lung cancer. I had to have a second surgery to take out the lower left lobe of my lung and my lymph nodes. I went to most of my appointments on my own so that my husband, Aaron, could be with our son. I started going to therapy to try to figure out how to process everything, and my therapist suggested I ask Aaron what it’s like to be married to someone with lung cancer. He’s strong, but he told me he felt like he couldn’t show weakness. Then he sobbed for the first time since my diagnosis.
I got involved with a lung cancer nonprofit called Lungevity. I also started going to Gilda’s Club, a cancer-support community named for Gilda Radner. I’m an African American woman, and I met another African American woman there who had breast cancer for the third time. She had to take two buses and then walk to chemo, which would sometimes make her late. The nurses, pissed at her tardiness, would sometimes turn her away. I, meanwhile, had people at school sending food and helping to take care of my family. I had a supportive church group. I had other mom friends who helped to pick up the slack. We should all have that kind of support. How do you survive stage IV cancer without it? My mission is to help other women of color survive cancer.
Three months after my first surgery, I started teaching middle school full-time. I couldn’t just stay at home and perseverate on my cancer. I had to do something. My students helped heal me. I didn’t tell them about my lung cancer until a month or two in. It was wonderful to be able to say, “If you feel like your life sucks right now, I promise it will get better.” I teach language arts, which is all about sharing stories and understanding characters. I think I have a lot to pull from.
“Cancer forces you to face your own mortality. It feels like an out-of-body experience, and yet it’s my new normal.”
For the first year after my surgery, I got a scan every three months. Now, in my second year of recovery, I get one every six months. Once I make it to five years, we get closer to talking about being cured and not having a recurrence. I don’t want to say I’m in limbo, but I can’t lie and say I don’t get worried when I lose a couple of pounds. I call what I’m doing “surviving.”