A Brave August

August 30, 2022
Amber smiles while standing on a sidewalk in front of a leafy green tree in the summer sunshine

Amber in summertime Colorado.

Editor's NoteThis is part of Amber's series Surviving Cancer: A Personal Journey. Please see other posts in this series.

Trauma anniversaries are painfully difficult. To be sure, everyone experiences anniversaries and trauma differently. There is no right or wrong way. For me, while every single month has something big and cancer-y in it, some months hit harder because the anniversaries in them hit harder. So, it’s interesting to me that this blog series is concluding in August — the same month when it all started 5 years ago.

August, you get me every time. It’s that time of year — the sweet summer smells of cut grass and barbeques, the crisp mornings and hot days, flip-flops and 8 p.m. walks, the colors of sunshine and rainbows, the annual family lake vacation, the anticipation of fall when life resumes its structure — when my trauma triggers fire nonstop. Because connected to each of those lovely things are dark and scary life-altering things.

5 years ago: August 7 was the day I saw my ob-gyn because I’d found a mass. “I’ll order a mammogram just in case,” she said. At 37, I scheduled my very first (and turns out, only) mammogram ever.

I was petrified.

5 years ago: August 15 was the day I got into a gnarly car wreck. I distinctly remember thinking: “I couldn’t get out of the car if I were dead, so I must be alive.” And then: “If that car had hit me into that tanker a second earlier, I’d be dead.” And then: “Maybe it’s not cancer, then? Why would I survive this if I am just going to die of that?”

I was hurting yet hopeful, denying yet knowing.

5 years ago: August 18 was the day of my mammogram. That turned into an unexpected ultrasound. That turned into an “I’m very concerned” from the radiologist. That turned into a scheduled biopsy.

I was sick with anger.

5 years ago: August 24 was the day of my biopsy. The day I was ushered into a medical procedure that stripped me of dignity. That splayed my vulnerabilities wide open. I was touched and prodded and poked and cut into as my breast hung from a hole in a raised table. And at the end, instead of leaving, I was taken to a room with my husband and told, “We’ll call you tomorrow with official pathology, but it’s serious. I’m pretty certain it’s cancer. And I’m pretty certain you’re looking at a bilateral mastectomy.”

I was disgusted and felt violated.

5 years ago: August 25 was the day I got The Call.

I was eerily calm, as I think my body knew all along.

5 years ago: August 28 was the day I went in for a breast MRI. Yet another medical procedure that snarls the mind. As I lay there, breasts hanging through holes in a cold metal table, ratcheting sounds suffocating already fried nerves, a body in pain from a car wreck and an invasive biopsy and a heart bracing itself: “Has it spread? What stage am I? Is it genetic? Oh, my daughters! What will I tell them? How did this happen? Am I really going to have a mastectomy? Why couldn’t the car wreck have killed me instead? I don’t want to die of cancer.”

I was spiraling.

5 years ago: August 30 was the day I met a surgeon. The one who would, a short 8 days later, amputate my cancerous breast and my healthy one, too, just in case. The one who would disfigure me. The one who would do what needed to be done to try and save me.

I was despairing.

My body, mind, and heart all collide in the commotion that trauma creates. I’m disoriented and unsure if then is now, or if then is then and now is now, and then what to do with any of it, because all of it feels overwhelming. My body remembering all too vividly because trauma stores itself in the body, unconformed to the constructs of time and logic. My mind and heart working to make sense of the tangled rational-emotional-primitive mess of trauma.

Some days I wake up in a cold sweat, or I’ll “feel funny” when doing my makeup. I’ll have unexplained nausea or sore neck muscles and a stiff back, a weird throbbing pain in my side, restless and tingly legs, a weird off-ness somewhere in my middle that makes my nose prickle and my eyes sting. Some days my edges are sharp, my nerves all spikey and barbed, making me snappy and chippy and impatient and sour. Some days my fatigue is fatigued, so much so that exhausted and weary even fall short. And then there are the days that I’m goo, nebulous and hazy, where all I can do is stare at the wall because words and thoughts and feelings are far too out of reach. 

My body, mind, and heart all collide in the commotion that trauma creates. I’m disoriented and unsure if then is now, or if then is then and now is now, and then what to do with any of it, because all of it feels overwhelming.

Anniversary dates are complex. Some we love to celebrate and others we hate to remember. Some are amazing but now also tainted by pain. Some we wish to forget but then, if we do, what else would have to be forgotten? The reality is that time marches on and those anniversaries will come, like it or not. What I’m learning in my surviving is to give them space. Honor them. Quiet the shoulds and the shame. And use that space to reflect on their significance for what they have to teach me.

Those days in August, 5 years ago, were vile. They were dark. They were traumatizing. And there are many other dark and vile days that have followed. All just as intense; all their anniversaries, much the same. But the darkness offers something. The reflection teaches me grace for the way my body, mind, and heart clatter in surviving. It teaches me understanding of why surviving is so hard. And it gives me reasons to keep surviving while bravely making it matter.

The glowing sun begins to rise over the horizon, tinging the gray sky with hues of pink and orange
Just like the sun keeps showing up, so does Amber, who captured this gorgeous sunrise on a difficult August morning, reminding her to bravely keep showing up.

Truthfully, surviving is the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I’m grateful, and I don’t take it for granted, but I’m also not going to beat around any flower-encased bush. I’m rewired and redefined. The time I now live in is altered. The space I now inhabit, vastly different. Upside down became my right side up, so my reality is totally backward and there is no returning to what was. Cancer isn’t just a detour. It’s a whole new way. It’s a whole new me.

Surviving is also one of the hardest experiences to articulate. I’ve described it as a wide-open choppy ocean, with unpredictable weather and a novice sailor, no landforms on the horizon to offer perspective, no maps to chart the way. Or as a vast desert, dry and crusty, no footprints to follow or leave behind, no cactus to track progress, any oasis obscure. I’ve even likened it to a bridge spanning across a fog-saturated chasm, each rung different than the one before, some rickety, some sound, some altogether missing, the fall always just a step away.

I’m rewired and redefined. The time I now live in is altered. The space I now inhabit, vastly different… Cancer isn’t just a detour. It’s a whole new way. It’s a whole new me.

But I think the visual that might capture this cancer-surviving experience the best is Me, in any one of those settings, with my Cancer Companion on one side and my Cancer Monster on the other. The Companion because of how wholly I am changed. The Monster because of how I’ll never be the same. The Companion, my friend full of grace, showing me all the amazing things that come to light from the traumatic dark. The Monster, its claws permanent and invidious, reminding me with every twinge, cough, ache, and pain that I’ll never be free again.

Living on purpose (which for me is now synonymous with surviving) means that my Cancer Monster and my Cancer Companion are now always with me. I’ll never escape the claws, but I also choose the change. Both matter. The Monster reminding me how life is tenuous and fragile and precarious. The Companion reminding me how precious, and to constantly cherish that which really matters. The Monster teaching me what bravery is from the dark. The Companion teaching me what bravery is from the light.

And this is what I’d love to leave you with. What the Monster and the Companion teach me is that bravery isn’t the clichéd flexed arm. Instead, bravery is:

  • Being where your feet are, being there on purpose, and not yet writing the end of the story.
  • Holding the complicated Both/Ands when Either/Ors come with much more clarity.
  • Doing your best with what you know, trusting you’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it. And then giving yourself grace in Hindsight.
  • Finding purpose in the space between the Known and the Unknown.
  • Believing that sometimes progress is in the 3 steps back.
  • Choosing the path that would be easier to deny.
  • Genuineness. Grief. Gratitude. Grace.
  • Showing up and participating when confidence, certainty, and faith feel small.
  • Having tough boundaries and a soft heart.
  • Self-care. Self-love. Self-awareness. Self-belief. Self-grace.
  • Traversing upside down in an unexpected and twisted Wonderland, chosen or not.
  • Trusting that it all matters (the traumas, too) and that nothing is wasted (the traumas, too).
  • Living changed.

Thank you Cancer Support Community for offering me space to tell a part of my story. And thank you, readers, for reading it.

Amber Havekost is a daughter, wife, mom, writer, advanced-stage cancer survivor, trauma survivor, counselor, coach, presenter, storyteller, and lifelong learner. She’s always learning how to adjust her sails on the open, uncharted waters of life and shares her story to empower others to share theirs. She is relentlessly authentic and chooses to live life on purpose because nothing is wasted. Learn more about Amber and her story on her website.