By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network
My 18 year old recently asked me, “Would adults recognize joy if we didn’t ever experience any heartaches or sadness?” This question arose out of his reading a novel in school. I told him I had to think about it and asked him to think as well. When we sat down for a snack a few minutes later, as we do when he isn’t in afterschool activities, we came to our realization that you wouldn’t know joy/happiness unless you have experienced the exact opposite.
I experienced the sadness before the joy as well as how to become a happiness antennae after I was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant 18 years ago (with my son Patrick above). First, it is obvious that I was shocked, saddened, and devastated by the breast cancer diagnosis. Secondly, we were going through a babysitter drought when I was first diagnosed. The first several weeks were filled up with countless trips to the surgeon, oncologist, hospital, OB’s office visit and sonograms. My husband and I treated them like mini dates, grabbing a croissant and coffee on the way, and holding hands, talking, and laughing (yes, laughing) in the oncologist’s office. People would look at us and wonder what we were laughing at. Today I cannot recall the exact things that we found silly, but one memory in particular sticks out; the scene in the waiting room. We were by far the youngest in there by about 20-30 years. And I was the only one with the pregnant belly. It had a tragic, surreal, which then took on a comical feel to us out of the sheer bizarreness of the situation. It just made us laugh and that was good. We felt so lucky to have this special time and to find humor and happiness together.
Other times we would bring our 2 ½ year old son and our 5 year old daughter when she wasn’t in her morning nursery school. This brought me such happiness and joy and still does to this day. Back in 1997 when we first began this organization, I counselled my first few pregnant with cancer patients. They would ask me if chemo hurt. I would pause and then tell them that I don’t truly remember because I could only recall happy thoughts about my infusion visits. During the first 6 months of chemo, the veins in my arms looked like dark railroad tracks. They collapsed so many times they decided to put a port in my arm for the next 3 ½ months of another type of chemotherapy. However, I only remember infusion visits to be filled with non-stop conversation with my wonderful nurse and my caring and loving husband. When the kids were with us my son was busy on the floor arranging his Matchbox cars in rows, and my daughter was busily coloring in her coloring book, then proudly handing her creations out to the nurse and doctor. The doctor was so kind to the children. He always insisted on bringing them some hard candy as a treat. I would always have to decline for my 2 ½ year old, reminding my brilliant doctor that it was a choking hazard. We’d all chuckle. It was clear that they were not accustomed to small children around.
Looking back, it must have hurt but I have only a shadow of memory of this. However, I believe that one of two things or a combination of the two occurred. Either I experienced self-imposed amnesia to protect myself from the painful memory. Or, I have chosen to remember the happy times with my nurse and husband and the times with my adorable children who were doing normal things during this bizarre chapter in my life. When asked about this time, these happy memories and feelings surface and the unpleasant ones fade in the distance.
My son asked me one final question during our afternoon snack, “Do you think that you have to work at obtaining happiness and joy?” I thought, and as a lover of history I remember the words of our enlightened writers of our American Constitution: “That all men have the right to the pursuit of happiness.” They did not say we have the right to happiness, but rather the right to pursue, go after, happiness. Having this right is a gift. Do we put up antennae to receive such signals of joy and then embrace those feelings, or do we put up barriers which repel such happiness? Since I am going this way through life but once, I choose the first.
Until next time, I’m wishing that we all find small joys in our everyday affairs and great happiness at just being here to experience life, love, and laughter. ✿