While the kids were putting their shoes on for Ash Wednesday Mass, my husband and I had a moment alone in the kitchen. I took a deep breath and said the words I’d been dreading to say out loud:
“I found a lump in my breast.”
I had known for a few days. How many days, I’m not sure. Something powerful inside me wanted to believe “this isn’t happening, this isn’t real. Everything’s fine. Just ignore this.” I didn’t want it to be true. I could barely say it out loud.
“Can you feel that?”
I showed him where the lump was.
“Yes. I can feel it, too.”
“Shit.” I whispered, trying to keep the tears from coming. I had been hoping that he would say. “No, it’s all in your head. Nothing’s there.” But that’s not what he said. He could feel it, too. I tried not to cry.
He pulled me in for a hug and then the kids ran back into the room and we loaded them up for Mass.
Mass was packed. No where to park. Standing room only. We found a spot in an aisle. It surprises me every year that Ash Wednesday is so popular. It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation. You don’t have to go to Mass. But everybody does. All the Easter and Christmas Catholic show up, too. We want to be there.
We need the tangible reminder of the ashes on our foreheads and words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Culturally we ignore death to such a degree that we’re hungry for the reminder that we are mortal. That someday, we will die–memento mori, “Remember that you have to die.”
For me, this year’s experience of ashes traced in a cross on my head was poignant and even comforting. I was processing the idea that I might have breast cancer like my mom did. And I was terrified. Because I mostly live in a dream world in which suffering and death cannot touch me. But it’s a fantasy. We are all dust and to dust we shall return.
So we all show up on Ash Wednesday. We long for Lent because in death we find new life. We acknowledge this memento mori and what it means is we must convert. We must turn toward life–real life. This conversion–we need it every Lent. When we push through life without a thought of our inevitable death, are we living well? Are we living at all?
It took weeks to be referred for diagnostic tests and receive the results. Weeks of waiting, anxiety, and no sleep. And during those weeks life looked different than before. I couldn’t fool myself into thinking I had an infinite number of days with my family. I didn’t have the false sense of control anymore.
What if I have cancer? Is Gwen my last baby? And what if I only had one more year with my kids? What would I want them to know if I have to leave them? What does it feel like to die?
I had fears and questions, but I also felt like I was awaking to life. The feel of my toddler’s head on my shoulder when she falls asleep. My son’s dark eyelashes and tender smile. My oldest daughter’s hand in mine. This. I want more of this. This is what’s truly precious.
What didn’t cross my mind? I really wish I’d spent more time on social media and trying to lose that extra five pounds that showed up after weaning my youngest. Nope. All the shallow things didn’t matter anymore.
I started looking my kids in the eye more often when they told their rambling stories. Giving more hugs and telling them how proud I was of them each day. Trying to be patient when my temper was rising. Pulling them in for more hugs. Reading that extra chapter at bedtime. Every second became more precious.
I didn’t want to have a lump in my breast and didn’t want to think about the fact that it was there, so I didn’t really share with friends and family save Daniel and of course, I didn’t want to worry my kids. So I tried to keep things business as usual, which is incredibly difficult for someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. The blog got quiet as I focused all my energy in keeping life moving for my family.
I waited for my diagnostic tests in the clean, spa-like waiting room in a bathrobe to find out if I needed a biopsy. I got a mammogram and then an ultrasound. I’ve had many ultrasounds during my three pregnancies and it’s always been a joyful, wondrous experience. Seeing the life growing inside me. But this time I watched the screen just wondering whether I had cancer growing inside me.
The tech left to discuss the results with the radiologist and then breezed in to say that I didn’t have anything to worry about. It was likely just a harmless cyst and I should come back in six months to confirm there’s no change. I put my clothes back on and turned in my soft, white bathrobe. Then made it to my van before crying tears of relief. I texted Daniel the good news and told him I wanted to get a new tattoo and have another baby because YOLO.
It’s been a very lenty Lent. I’ve thought about death a lot. And although it doesn’t seem like I’m leaving this world anytime soon, someday I am going to die. Someday you are going to die. We will become dust and the world will keep spinning. But death is always the beginning of life. Like a baptism. Like the Cross.
I recently heard someone say, “Death is the performance for which all of life is the rehearsal.” I want nothing more than the grace of a happy death. Not a death without suffering, mind you, but a good death. I want to live my life well so that death is not a terror, but a door to walk through with Jesus and Mary at my side.
Living with memento mori written on our hearts isn’t a morbid thought. The knowledge that our earthly life has an expiration date makes it all the more precious. It directs our temporal lives to be lived for what is eternal like the souls of men and the love of God. It makes the joy of being with those we love more piercing. Like Joy Davidman’s character in Shadowlands says, “The pain then is part of the happiness now.”
Staring our mortality in the face changes the way we live. This whole ordeal has gifted me with something I didn’t embrace before: my future death. Remember that you have to die. Live each day well in that knowledge. And I just might get memento mori tattooed on my arm so that I can never forget it again.
Prayers for each of you lovely readers during this Holy Week. And also: Ladies, please remember to do monthly breast exams and stay on top of yearly mammograms. These procedures save lives. Your loved ones will thank you for taking care of yourself.
Ruth Anne says
How nerve wracking, but beautifully written. It reminds me of *last* Ash Wednesday. We found out my grandfather passed away as we were sitting down in the pew for Mass. I wasn’t horribly close to him, but he was still my grandpa (and the first of my grandparents to die), and those words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” take on a much heavier meaning when one is literally forced to confront them head on.
Yes. So sorry about your grandfather. <3
Clare Meehan says
Timely piece for me. Tomorrow I have a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound because they saw “something” on my routine one last week. Because I am a hospice nurse I feel acutely aware, always, of “memento mori” –but not usually in such a profound way. Hoping for the same outcome, but regardless, it has added a particular poignancy to my late Lent and Holy Week prayer.
Oh Clare! So sorry you’re dealing with this. Praying for you.
This was very beautiful Haley. I have lived with cancer for the last 20 years. I was just thinking about this as I took my daily walk and I was musing at how blessed I am to live with this reminder of my mortality. Yes, I am certain that the choices I make and have made over the past twenty years are much different than they would have been without this grace.
This line made me cry and laugh all at once: ” I texted Daniel the good news and told him I wanted to get a new tattoo and have another baby because YOLO.” What a powerful testimony to the true meaning of Lent. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.
That one got me too, same reaction 🙂
So glad you’re okay Haley, but more than that glad you’re awake. This is a beautiful reflection to take into Holy Week. Thank you.
Thank you, friend!
Oh I can so relate to this! Breast cancer runs in my family and about 15 years ago in my early 20’s, before husband and kids, I also found a lump. Had to have a biopsy and the lump removed. Turned out to be non – cancerous, but it was a rough couple of months waiting for news and feeling like my life was so changed. This was before I joined the Catholic church and looking back at the experience now through a “Catholic lens” I wish I’d had the perspective then of offering it up. A scare like that is a game changer for sure. I’m so glad that everything turned out to be ok for you. Thanks for sharing your Lenten perspective on the experience Haley.
What a grueling experience, Amy! So glad you’re ok.
Big hugs for all you’ve been through, tears for the beautiful story, a smile for the joyful results and a ? At your YOLO goals. I’m glad you shared this with us.
Aw, thanks, friend!
So sorry for your experience! You description of feeling acutely aware of what is precious rings true for me when I had some serious troubles with my heart condition and 3 little kids a couple of years back. Beautiful reflection! St. Joseph Pray for us!
Wow. Thanks for sharing this very personal story.
Those YOLO goals made me laugh out loud too — I could totally see myself saying the same thing to my husband!
Thanks for your blog and podcast – I really enjoy both!
Aw, I’m so glad, KD!
God Bless you, Haley, and your strength. I am so appreciative of your Catholic candor and think your YOLO goals are on point. Please know that you continue to be an inspiration to this Catholic mama and will continue to be in my prayers.
Just beautiful, Haley. I’m sorry for the fear you went through, but thanks for sharing with us the thoughts it inspired in you. I’m so glad you’re well.
Thank you, Julie!
Kristen Sosebee says
Thank you, Haley. Beautiful.
I am so glad that you got the “all clear”! Our faith is a blessing in that we have sub beautiful theology to help us process grief, suffering, worry, and our own mortality.
“I started looking my kids in the eye more often when they told their rambling stories.” – this hit home for me…. so much talking. I know all too soon they won’t want to tell me every little thing that pops into their heads. They’ll pull away someday to start their own lives. There is a lot of growing up first before we reach the end and that’s a process I need to consciously enjoy more. I’m going to practice this- thank you.
I’m so glad everything is okay!
Almost 8 years ago – two months after getting engaged and 3 days before Christmas, while on college break – I got “the call” from my doctor saying that I most definitely did have cancer. After almost two years of going through treatments, things obviously worked out well. Now I just have a blood test every year… it’s my own little memento mori each year. One that, oddly enough, I’ve come to embrace rather than fear.
What a scary time that must have been, Sonia! So glad you’re well now.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur says
So glad you were OK. I’ve had a similar experience with the possibility of uterine cancer. It does make you look at life differently. Thank you for sharing.
Barb White says
I’m glad it’s not cancer. We love you out here in Catholic cyberspace. Sometimes we choose our suffering, and sometimes it chooses us.
Yes! My lenten penance wasn’t what I expected this year, that’s for sure, haha.
So relieved to hear you’re ok. (PHEW!) Thank you as always for your beautiful and insightful writing. I love the thought provoking quote by Joy Gresham from Shadowlands. Every day I walk past her former house as it’s at the top of the street where we live.
That is so amazing that her house is so nearby!!!
My ‘memento mori’ moment didn’t come during Lent, but I’ve meditated on it a lot this season. Last summer, my old roommate’s mum – a semi-professional cyclist – died after cycling into a ravine during a holiday in the French mountains. I woke up to use the bathroom at 4a.m. and was idly flicking through Facebook when I saw a post from my friend’s father: “Marie was in a cycling accident today, and died from her injuries. We are devastated and in shock.” It’s the first time in my life that I really couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept expecting to wake up from it.
I wasn’t even close to the mother who died, but of course I felt acutely aware of my friend’s immense, deep suffering. Her shock, anger, grief. My friend was only 24, and her mother 50. It changed everything for me. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with my own mother, but I immediately started to work much harder and loving her and appreciating her despite our problems. She could go at any moment. And same for any of us.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot this Lent. Since Marie died, I’ve felt a constant fear, anxiety, of the terrible things that can happen. I’ve taken it to Jesus and asked: does this show a lack of trust, that I live in fear? And He told me, no, I’ve felt fear too. In Gethsemane, I was scared. As I carried the cross, I was scared. I will sit with you in your fear. But take this fear and let it feed love, and hope in the world to come.
Marie wasn’t Catholic, or even Christian, and nor are her family. I wonder often how I would bear it without faith. I think that, for Christians, a ‘memento mori’ frame of mind can draw us nearer to God. Without faith, I can only imagine that it might drive you to a despair in which God would feel further and more intangible than ever.
Louise, thank you for these words. ? Haley, thank you as well. God bless.
Beautiful reflection, Louise!
Such a beautiful post. At age 23, I was in a similar boat, although I was single and childless. I ran out and bought lingerie and jewelry to feel pretty while I waited. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with “young, lumpy breasts.” I can’t even imagine it now that I’m a wife and a mother. Kudos to you for having the courage to share.
Elizabeth Foss says
I’ve lived with cancer for seventeen years. Remission is a new lease on life, but cancer in one’s early twenties definitely changes the trajectory forever. I’ve never quite left that Memento Mori place. And my tattoos? Ten small dots that could be mistaken for freckles. They outline the radiation field.
Jessica Ptomey says
Thanks for sharing this, Haley! Walking through these kinds of things is really hard, but once they have served their purpose in “waking us up,” there is a gratitude for the suffering that comes. Your beautiful post reminded me of Thomas a Kempis’s words: “Happy is the man who keeps the hour of death always in mind, and daily prepares for it.”
What a good quote!
So glad you’re okay!
I had a similar experience several months ago… Waiting for the radiologist to come back with the results was a surreal experience. Thank you for sharing your story and putting it in the perspective of Lent. So glad you are well!
Thanks for this post! I had a somewhat similar experience last year, and it led to similar thoughts about life/mortality. It is one thing to know that you are mortal intellectually, and quite another to know it in your gut! While I very much appreciate the perspective I gained after going through the brush with cancer, it is tough to keep the perspective supernatural! It can quickly descend to anxiety. For myself, I found these books to be helpful in maintaining a supernatural outlook and growing in abandonment:
Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Jacques Philippe
I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teachings of St Therese (don’t be fooled by the cheesy title — this book is amazing!)
Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
I very much welcome any other reading suggestions!
Oh dear Haley, I am so sorry to hear about this terrible scare. I remember a line from the book “Apostolate of Holy Motherhood” where our Lord says that he has the power to remove any cross from our lives, but he will not do it if it is essential to our salvation. It has made me look at suffering differently. So glad this has recalibrated some things in your life but so sorry you had to deal with all the fear and uncertainty. Love and blessings to you.
I know exactly what you went through. I first noticed lumps (yes, plural) in my breasts in my early 20s (I’m 31 now). It turns out that I have fibrocystic breast cysts — I have multiple benign lumps which, I believe, are common in up to 20% of women; some say even 50% of women have them at some point in their lives. They get especially swollen and painful around that time of the month. I didn’t know this at first and I got so scared until they did ultrasounds and an older gynecologist (a gentleman, no less!) said I had inherited my mother’s fibrocystic condition… which she didn’t even know she had but which he was able to quickly detect. I still check the lumps since I was told not to differentiate between the cysts and what would be an abnormal, possibly cancerous, lump. I believe God still has many great plans for you, Haley and I’m glad that this scare was just that – a scare. <3
Elizabeth Clare says
It has truly been a Lenty Lent around here as well. The best sacrifices are the ones God chooses for us. I’m so glad to hear things are okay for you. May you live in the power of the Resurrection this coming Easter season!
Reproductive cancers run in my maternal line: older generations would only have cancer manifest in old age, but younger ones would have issues come up earlier and earlier due to lifestyle habits. Well, now its MY generation and I have done a lot to keep on top of my health: no smoking, little drinking, eating generally healthy, using NFP and not hormonal birth control, breastfeeding, etc. But in the end, I know that I have an increased risk due to genetic factors and it’s beyond my control. Thank you for being so honest and open sister, I know the fear too well and its good to have Jesus to turn to. <3
Oh sweet Haley, how scary. I’m glad everything was ok in the end, and that you pulled such a positive experience from it in the end. Thinking of you and your sweet family this Easter.
So glad it was all a scare!
My mom passed away from an extremely aggressive cancer last July. She went from 100% healthy and years of life ahead to near her death bed in three weeks. Luckily chemo bought her some time, but only nine months. It sucked. She suffered. In my opinion, there are some types of suffering that have no purpose. However, she also lived a very deep last nine months. I was profoundly lucky to share every day of those months with her. I was the lucky one in all of it. The momento mori put my life into sharp focus. I only looked at what mattered, and what mattered was precious to me.
Now eight months have passed and I find myself forgetting sometimes. I appreciate this post because it’s bringing me back to those moments.
It’s clear you appreciate what a gift the momento mori is. It’s easy to lose hold of. Hold onto it! ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Rachel Gillespie says
You’re amazing. This made me laugh and cry!
Rachel Gillespie says
Whoops. I put the wrong blog address. ? It’s actually dot blog, not dot com.
Thanks for sharing, Haley. I’m delighted that you are fine. Ladies, please also pay attention to ‘nipple changes’. I never knew what that meant, but seven years ago, I noticed that one wouldn’t pop out, even after a funny attempt to make them match [with an ice cube] failed. Big-C filled the milk duct, even though I couldn’t feel a lump, only nine months after a clean mammo. Mastectomy. Conversion. Thanks be to God I’m still here to read Carrots, and I’m fine, and now I know how to pray, imperfectly. Happy Easter everyone. Thank you for explaining liturgical living.
Goodness. I’m so glad you’re okay. I went through the exact same scenario just before Lent and I’m re-living it with you, down to the long wait to schedule and the spa robe and the ultrasound and staring at all of the other women in the diagnostic waiting room (of which I was clearly the youngest) choking back tears trying not to think about all of our futures. I’m so sorry you had to go through it, …and praise God for the perspective we have now on the other side of thhat long sigh of relief.
So glad you are ok! Breast cysts are so scary! Been there.
Hi Haley. I discovered your blog a few weeks ago when I was trying to search the internet for other Catholic moms that had tips for taking young kids to mass. I was drawn to your story of conversion. Your blog is very encouraging and has motivated me to help me nurture my kids’ spirituality. Anyways, this particular post inspired me to respond because I also had a very similar experience. I discovered a lump in my breast towards the end of my last pregnancy in October of 2015. I told my OB about it at one of my last check ups and he felt it was probably related to the pregnancy but we could get an ultrasound after I delivered if it didn’t go away. Long story short, it didn’t go away. I freaked out and thought a lot about death while I waited diagnostic tests and to be seen by a breast cancer specialist. It was scary and I wish I could say I handled it like a champ and trusted God. But all I could think was how are my children going to survive without their mommy. They were so little and I feared that if I died, then wouldn’t remember me and they wouldn’t know how much I loved them. The ultrasound results showed the lump to likely be benign and we have been following it for the past 1.5 years to make sure there are no changes. From that moment, I discovered a new beauty in being a mother and resolved to show my kids how much I love them. I learned more about grace. Our time is fleeting and our moment is now. I had to remind myself that our God is so good and He wouldn’t abandon my family. Thank you for sharing this story and thank you for your beautiful perspective!
I’ve had two cancer scares and I definitely get everything you’ve written here. Thankfully, I was fine both times and I’m still here to live the ordinary days with my children. But you are right that the memento mori is important, it is part of living.
Your YOLO goals sound a lot like I’d imagine mine to be. And if this isn’t inappropriate to share, this reminds me in the slightest bit of Vanency Sterling 🙂 But seriously, I’m so glad everything is ok and thank you for sharing this beautiful reflection!
The day after Ash Wednesday 2017 I had a breast biopsy. The day after that the doctor called to say I had breast cancer. The day after that, my husband and I were saying a rosary together (after a sleepless night and much fear!) and I heard God say to me, “Remember when you were younger and were terrified of getting cancer? Well, now you have it, and you will find out you have nothing to be afraid of because I am with you.” My fear immediately melted away and I went on to be blessed with the most gentle cancer journey. I like learning it is my memento mori, thank you Haley! God bless you and your family ‘
So now I’m wondering, a year later: babe is on the way, did you ever get the tattoo?