Elizabeth Heiskell reveals her breast cancer diagnosis

Four months ago, I was waiting for a yoga class to start when the teacher said hello to me. She’s one of my favorites – I think of her as a little light bulb that barely touches the ground of the earth when she walks. She just floats through this world. No one else was in the lobby, so I decided to share my news with her.

“I just wanted to let you know that I have breast cancer and had chemo yesterday,” I said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do in class today.”

I wanted her to know that if I had to leave early or walk out in the middle of a break, it wasn’t because I didn’t like her class.

“Do you have breast cancer? she asked, and I nodded.

“Congratulations on your trip,” she said, as if I had told her that I had won the lottery.

If anyone had a photo of my face at that exact moment, I can tell you it would have been epic. I wanted to say, “Lady, you have to quit smoking that incense you’re still burning here.” I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. I was so surprised. During class I was pissed off, getting crazier by the minute – but I stayed the whole time.

Four weeks earlier, I had been to a sports bar in Oxford, Mississippi, where I live. Ole Miss baseball season ended with the Rebels in Omaha and it was an amazing game. About halfway through the game, I scratched my chest and felt a lump – a big bump. I had my friend Machelle come into the bathroom to smell it. I will never forget the look on his face. She was terrified.

Heiskell with her husband and two of their daughters. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Heiskell)

Machelle met me at my gynecologist’s office the following Monday morning. We entered the room and Julie, my doctor, began to examine me. A very worried expression passed over his face. We talked about the mammogram I remembered having had months earlier, and she went to watch the movie. When she returned, she looked even more worried. “Elizabeth,” she said, “it’s been two years, not 8 months since your last mammogram.

Then she gave me the plan: mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy.

I heard the words, but they didn’t sink in – I couldn’t let them. Julie sent me for a blood test, but not before Machelle stood up crying and said, “Can we please hold hands and pray?” So we all stood there, hand in hand, in the exam room and Machelle prayed. They were both crying, and I remember thinking, “That’s pretty dramatic, Machelle.”

Test after test, I was more and more in denial. I was in the best shape of my life. My career was flourishing. My daughter and I were driving to Memphis, where I had a big meeting — Goldbelly was interested in selling my cakes — when my phone rang. It was the doctor.

“Elizabeth, we have the biopsy results and you have invasive ductal carcinoma,” she said. (Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer, which starts in the milk ducts and spreads to nearby tissues.) She went on to explain that I was hormone receptor negative but still waiting. HER2 test results. That’s all I remember. At that point, I went into complete panic mode. We turned the car around.

We got home and my husband, Luke, knew when he saw us so soon. He knew it from the expression on our faces. I didn’t have to say the words “I have cancer”, but I did because I wanted to know how it felt. I wanted to see if my brain could even let me form the sentence. It’s hard to be told you have cancer. Having to tell people you love is next to impossible.

After getting several opinions from different specialists, we finally came up with a plan. Honestly, that was half the battle. Once I knew what was coming, dealing with it felt bearable. The plan was for six cycles of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy.

The morning of my first chemo, I tried to remember all the advice I had been given on what to wear. Lord, I had been schooled on black tie, summer casual, business casual, even Delta casual, but chemo casual? Not really.

I opted for soft drawstring joggers and a deep v-neck t-shirt. I had borrowed my daughter’s soft robe to keep me warm and put it in my suitcase—yes, I took a suitcase. Luke and I might as well have had a neon sign on our back that said, “Hello, we’re new here!”

Heiskell wearing the cold cap to preserve his hair during his cancer treatment.  (Courtesy of Elizabeth Heiskell)

Heiskell wearing the cold cap to preserve his hair during his cancer treatment. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Heiskell)

I sent my friends a picture of me in the cold cap and wrote, “This fucking shit.” My friend Mendy replied with instructions: “Visualize a perfect beach day, sand in your butt in those awful canvas beach chairs, a cooler full of cold beer, a cabbage dog lunch, a giant bag of crisps .” Well, that helped more than anyone could imagine. Then Machelle chimed in: “I think the cold cap looks like a helmet required on a vespa in Italy. Dream of riding this winding road in Capri. Hot Italian men and an Aperol spritz.

But the cold was unimaginable. When I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, another woman standing there in a cold cap – Diane, a chemo veteran – spoke from behind the curtain where she was undergoing her own treatment: “A few more minutes and I wanted my hair for my daughter’s debutante ball. I wanted my hair for an upcoming wedding in Paris. I wanted my hair even though there was only half of it left. She was right. I didn’t quit and within minutes the sharp pain was gone – the beanie felt cold and tight, but it was manageable.

Around that time, the nurse arrived with the chemotherapy machine. My anxiety and fear started to mount. The panic started in my stomach. I looked at Luke, sitting on a small chair, and he had tears in his eyes. I knew what he was thinking. I knew all he wanted was to take everything from me. He looked so helpless, and I don’t think in 27 years of marriage I’ve ever been so in love.

I was delighted when the day was behind me. It’s amazing how our minds can run wild with fear. It was a tough day – filled with excruciating pain and lots of tears – but it was nothing compared to the picture my mind had created.

At this point, I’ve checked off half of my six chemo treatments. The tumor has shrunk to more than half its size. What I do to stay positive is wrap myself in all the silver linings I have, even in this mess. And now I finally understand what my sweet yoga teacher was talking about when she said “congratulations”. There are so many lessons that can only be learned in dark times, so many gifts that are only discovered by overcoming fears.

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “You’re strong. God won’t give you more than you can handle. We’ve all heard that when we’re going through tough times. But it’s not that. I think it’s that God knows you’re ready to take another journey. You are ready to experience all the lessons this new journey has to offer.

That day at yoga, I picked up a little card which the studio presented to the front desk, each with a different, inspirational quote. That day, mine said, “Every difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart.”

You can’t choose if you have cancer, but you can choose how you experience this cancer journey. It’s different for everyone, but I choose to pursue joy and lean into all the lessons that only times like these can teach me.

This article originally appeared on TODAY.com

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