On Resilience: Thoughts on Elizabeth Edwards, my mother, and me

December 7th, 2010 § 12 comments

Doctors diagnosed my mother with breast cancer the exact same day Elizabeth Edwards heard those words in November, 2004.

Two years later, I too received a diagnosis of breast cancer.1

After my diagnosis I went for consultations with two oncologists. Each doctor handed me two pieces of paper displaying bar graphs of the risk of my cancer returning and the risk that I would die from my cancer. These risks were broken down and calculated for four separate conditions: 1)  if I did nothing, 2) if I received chemotherapy, 3) if I received hormonal therapy, and 4) if I received “combined” therapy (chemotherapy + hormonal therapy). On the top of the stark white pieces of paper in my doctor’s writing it says “Survival” on one and “Recurrence” on the other.

I made my decision rather easily: to treat my Stage II cancer I opted for a double mastectomy2, chemotherapy, and adjuvant hormonal therapy3. I had a husband and three young children; I wasn’t taking any chances– I would do whatever it took to get me into remission and give me the best possible chance of survival.

My mother, because of the particulars of her Stage III cancer opted for a lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy.4

And so, my mother and I had different treatment plans. But while our treatment protocols differed, we both required the same character trait to get us through: resilience. Appropriately, this is also the title of Elizabeth Edwards’s book.

Resilience has carried me through my mother’s diagnosis and mine. My son Tristan’s surgeries and treatments for congenital spine and hand deformities. The sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law in a car crash one year ago.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back, the ability to find strength and reserves when you think there are none, the guts to wake up each morning and, knowing something else might be just around the corner, say, “Okay, world, bring it on. I can take it.”

It’s also the manner in which you take it. Do you feel defeated? Resigned? Depressed? Angry? Do you channel those negative emotions into something positive?

Some people believe that negative things like cancer and grief are gifts. Books I’ve seen preach that you should change your thinking: these events are not traumas or tragedies; they are gifts, positive intrusions into your life.

I don’t think so.

I don’t think cancer is a gift.
I don’t think grief is an opportunity.

I think these things suck.
I think they hurt.

There’s a difference between thought and action: what you do with those feelings is what counts.

People don’t need to have the same beliefs or think the same way to feel a magnetic pull to one another.

Resilience is like a magnetic pull to life, a force that keeps me coming back for more
with grit,

Resilience whispers in my ear,
“You can do it.
Just keep going.
One foot in front of the other.

It will get better.
And, if it doesn’t, well…
you can take it.
Bring it on.”

Elizabeth Edwards reached many people because she was in the public eye, but inspirational people also live quiet lives. We can be inspired by Edwards’s grace and courage as she dealt with the challenging parts of her life in the same way we can find inspirational people around us each and every day. These are all people we can connect with and learn from. In doing so, we better ourselves. In doing that, we honor their struggle.

My mother is alive, and in remission. And the joy that I feel about having my own mother here is shared in equal measure by the sorrow I feel for Ms. Edwards’s three living children, Catharine, Emma Claire, and Jack, over the loss of their mother.5

  1. genetic testing later showed I do not carry the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genetic mutation []
  2. I also opted for recontruction with silicone implants []
  3. first, Tamoxifen, then later, after surgical removal of my ovaries and Fallopian tubes, Arimidex []
  4. because her cancer was HER-2 Neu positive she also received Herceptin []
  5. her 4th child, Wade, died in a car crash in 1996 []

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§ 12 Responses to On Resilience: Thoughts on Elizabeth Edwards, my mother, and me"

  • Jenna says:

    I also have a problem understanding when people talk about terrible things as “gifts.” They are terrible things. If they are gifts, you should be allowed to return them.

    It is a very sad day. I feel for her children as well, and I’m glad to see how many people are thinking about and talking about Elizabeth Edwards today. Like you, I felt critical of some of her decisions, but I always admired her grace.

  • Beautiful post, as always Lisa.

  • Erika Robuck says:

    I’m so sad for Elizabeth Edwards’ children. They’ve had a very difficult, young life, and I don’t imagine it will get much easier. I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t been a gift for them.

    You and your blog, however, are a gift. You always know just what to say and just how to say it. Your posts touch us in ways you can’t know, and I’m thankful for them.

  • I agree with you. ADVERSITY is not a gift. The results of it, however, may very well be. Last year, when my then 20 year old faced a potentially life threatening situation, I told her that her reaction, and how she dealt with adversity would be a benchmark in her life. It’s not the situation. It’s NEVER the situation! It’s ALWAYS how we cope with it and how we let it define us.

    Beautiful post. Beautiful writing.

  • AvidReader78 says:

    Hugs and continued prayers for everyone!

  • KimBaxter says:

    I love your comments on the value of resilience. As a parents my husband and I reflect a lot about how to foster it in our children. We can not protect our kids from all of life’s bumps and bruises. Nor do we want to. We want them to get back on their bikes when they crash. We want them to stand up to the bully who makes them feel small. We want them to know that when life’s path is not what they expected/hoped/planned they will be okay. We also want them to know sometimes there is nothing like a really good cry. I too cried when I heard about Elizabeth Edwards’ death. I needed it.

  • Lauren says:

    very well said in a lovely post

  • Joe W says:

    Beautifully expressed as always, Lisa. And a point of view I share very strongly.

  • jo miller says:

    This is beautiful, This is powerful. This is heartbreaking. This is affirming. This is a gift.
    I love what you say about resilience. I will take that message and apply it to my life.
    Thank you for caring. Thank you for your inspiration.

  • […] with cancer felt the unspeakable sadness for the young Edwards children left behind. Those of us who struggle with the raw deal we have been handed with this disease remembered her courage and resilience. Her death became a […]

  • Michele says:

    I don’t think anything bad is ever a gift, but bad things can show you what you’re made of and make you feel pretty good about your strengths. Resilience is about focusing on the next step and struggling to take the next step, instead of digging a hole in the road and crawling into it. Resilient parents breed resilient children. Lisa, your kids are going to be fantastic.

  • Cheryl says:

    Thanks for this beautifully written post. I am a breast cancer survivor as well. May I share my take on cancer and “gifts”. I quite agree that cancer is not a gift. But what might be interpreted as a gift is the perspective that is often gained through our cancer journey. (Like not to sweat the small stuff, or it’s ok if we choose to sweat the small stuff, etc.) What I consider to be kind of a gift for me were the people I met, the incredibly dedicated medical professionals I met, the way my friend went above and beyond to help me and my family. And then for me to feel how much they loved me. That was kind of a gift, too. And finding that “deep river within” as Abby Seixas calls it – that reservoir of strength…and of course, last but not least, are all the other cancer survivors I’ve met along the way. Some of you have been more than gifts – treasures and lifelines…So the cancer itself was not a gift. But the silver lining of that storm gave me plenty of unexpected goodness.

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