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The Moment She Knew

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

You know that feeling when the blood rushes from all parts of your body to your head, you feel your heartbeat in every centimeter of your body and then water fills in your eyelids? Not to mention you can almost feel the neurons firing in your brain trying to process what the ears are sending to them… bouncing things around saying, “Wait, what? Am I hearing this correctly? Are you sure? Did you get that right?... “Nope, you didn’t… ask a question, clarify, stop lying to yourself”… until it all sorts out, settles in, the brain and ears agree, and then the tears start to flow. This is quickly followed by deep breathing sent in to calm the nerves and bring feeling back to your body.

Yup, that’s the feeling many of us get when we hear bad news… whether it is health news, family news, news of a global pandemic, each of us has some type of biological response when crisis arrives. The next few moments, hours, weeks of reaction tend to vary depending on the news, the person, the situation, but the amazing thing, humans are survivors, we have an inner strength that comes to us when we need it most. I think parents, and especially mothers, understand this best.

Anyway, all this to say, I study this, I teach this, I know this reaction. But really nothing can prepare you for that moment news drops in your lap. For me, the news of my breast cancer diagnosis came as a shock, I knew I was high risk from my mom and grandmas experience, I knew that at some point I would very likely get breast cancer… but wait, NOW? I am only 38? The doctor’s words started to blur together as the shock settled in, I reached for the words I wanted to hear, grasping onto them as they flowed out of her mouth… “early stage 1”… “extremely small and slow growing”… “very treatable”… “hormone receptor positive for estrogen & progesterone”… “good news when it comes to bad news - but it is invasive” … “lucky we caught it this early”…. They were all there, as each word flowed through her lips my body relaxed slightly until I eventually felt I was able to breathe, my hearing became more clear, and I controlled the flow of tears streaming down my cheeks.

The most fascinating part was my brain quickly flashed forward to a vision of me talking about being a survivor and the strength this gives me… I thought... “Ok I will “get” to talk about being a survivor the rest of my life” … a SURVIVOR, yep, my brain skipped any thoughts of death, any thoughts of treatment, the months of doctors’ appointments, surgery, medication…. All the way to the end of the story, the moment I share my story of getting through this, like any other struggle in life. I am not sure why my brain responded this way, maybe because my mom, grandma, and closest friend are all survivors, but whatever the reason… I sure am grateful.

The next set of words were “surgery, lumpectomy, radiation, medication”… all things I knew would be part of the next few months, but what that meant had not settled in…. the next flow of thoughts into my brain… “well I guess this will motivate you to lose the 50 lbs you need to lose, manage boundaries better at work, meditate more, connect with your friends and family and ride your horse more” … Ha! Again… thank you brain for jumping to the silver linings… then… “Ok Liz… you got this… this is nothing you can’t handle, it’s just time to take a deep breath and dive in…”.

Her words broke my thoughts… “Do you have any questions?”… this is where the awesome brain who was producing this forward focused positive thinking inner dialogue failed…I spilled out a shaky, tear filled response “ummmm…. Well… I am not sure… all I heard was, early stage, small, treatable, surgery… more appointments with more information coming soon…ummm… I guess I will have some once this all settles in….” my words felt almost robotic…I took a breath in as to not cry too hard with her on the phone. I knew she was used to people in shock but I somehow felt I needed to be strong in this moment. “Ok – so you will be hearing from Doctor Shim and Tracy soon, they will schedule your surgery and provide you with additional information. Again, we are so lucky to catch this so early. As I shared with you at the biopsy, this was so small most people would not have flagged it on your MRI, I am very glad she did.”… “yes so am I” I replied “and I would love to go hug Janet, the woman who scheduled my MRI appointment, she was pushy about me getting this done and also moved things around to work with my schedule… thank goodness she did.”

Click…we hung up.

The next few minutes are blurry… I remember my brain started saying… “ok, I need to call Deb to tell her I won’t be joining the meeting we were in when I had to drop… do I tell her? She knows I am waiting on results, do I call my parents first? Drive to their house?... what now?”…. the tears burst through… and a loud sob soared from my lungs…. There it was, the first release of emotion… the pressure from my narrow breathing pouring out into tears, releasing the energy that comes with this type of news… fear, adrenaline, shock.

Ok deep breath…. Call Deb.. “Hi” she said… then the brain said… “yep, gotta tell her cause you sure can’t hide it”… in come tears and shaky voice… “Deb, it’s not good news, I have cancer – its early stage – I won’t die – that’s all I know now ….I won’t be joining back on, I need to go to my parents, you got this, call Alli, you can share the news with her… you two can finish this sprint without me… I will check in soon…” Of course Deb, one of the most amazing and powerful women around, jumped right in, I could hear the sadness in her voice, I may be her “boss”, but we are also very close so I know this hits home in a real way.

Ok… now the brain goes into fire mode… “text Ken – tell him you need him to lean in on the vaccine mandate…”. Oh right… I forgot to add is that about 20 minutes before the doctor called with my diagnosis, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, our largest customer, emailed making the Covid-19 Vaccine mandatory for all of our 3200 employees… and we had 60 days to get them all vaccinated. Many of them are not vaccinated and have no intentions of doing so, this news was going to be a whirlwind…and an announcement that was going to put pressure on our already struggling recruitment pipeline. Yep, I just got diagnosed with Breast Cancer, at 38, during a global pandemic, during one of the most critical points of my career… 6 months previous I was promoted to Senior VP… increasing responsibility and stress on the daily… including making me responsible for Human Resources for thousands of frontline healthcare employees during a pandemic - and now a vaccine mandate… plus - now I have cancer.

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