What Breast Cancer Taught Me (and what I wish it hadn’t!)

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and you’re in one of two camps…either you’ve had breast cancer, or you have seen pink everywhere during the month. You probably have even bought something pink because companies make it seem like loads of money is donated to SAVE WOMEN! I am a self-proclaimed pink lover and have been since I could talk. Still, this month has a big problem: tons of companies make things pink and say they’re donating money but don’t actually donate, or they contribute to companies that aren’t actually helping women. So, to keep it simple, there are some wonderful companies that do a lot for women, and two of my favorites are Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Metavivor. So this month, just make sure you think before you pink and make sure your money is going to a reliable and worthy cause.
And now let’s head on back to those in the other group…those lucky ladies who’ve HAD breast cancer. I’m sure you all know someone in your life who has, and chances are, it’s your mom or your aunt or your grandma. When I was first diagnosed, everyone knew someone who had it, and almost everyone who had it was over the age of 65. It feels like you are alone on an island where you might die when you are a young woman diagnosed with cancer, and it is scary as heck. I’m not sure anyone knows how terrifying it is besides my husband, my best friends, and my doctors, who I ugly cried to frequently and grabbed their hands and asked if they thought I would die like in a Lifetime movie. (Completely true-I asked my surgeon if when he “opened me up” if he thought there would be cancer everywhere…I’m a FUN person to be around.) Being diagnosed with cancer was the scariest day of my life, and every aspect of my life is either pre-cancer or post-cancer now. I look at pictures of my kids, my husband and I before cancer, and I can’t help but wish I could just close my eyes and jump back into that life for just a day. I wish so badly I didn’t worry that every single ache or pain was cancer coming back. I wish that my daughter didn’t have to answer the question from a curious little kid, “why does your mom have hair like a boy?” and mostly, I wish that I could have learned the lessons cancer taught me without having to go through it all. But after lots of anger and sadness and frustration and “why me” conversations, I have come to the realization that bad stuff just happens. It just happens. You can choose to let it fester and be angry all the time or make everything sad. Still, at some point, you just have to realize that this was what was handed to you and that your life is changed in lots of good ways and lots of hard ways that only YOU will ever know about.

I want to start by sharing some of the good things cancer taught me. While I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, it showed my family how deeply loved we are. My husband and I learned that we have been blessed with so many amazing and incredible human beings who just showed up when we needed them most when things were hard. I was only 31 and had a 6, 4, and 18 month old at home when I was diagnosed, and we had so many people love on us. We had my oldest placed in a classroom with a teacher who also had breast cancer…this was done by an extremely thoughtful principal who put my kiddo first. We had my coworkers and the school I teach at throw our family a Saaranen family game night to help raise money for my insane medical bills. I saved every single note and keep it in a box I look at once a year to remind me of all those people who love us. I had my best friends come up after surgery and joke with me and hug me and hold my hands when a nurse showed me what my chest looked like after surgery. We had family and friends and neighbors do all kinds of amazing things that I keep bottled up in my heart to remind me how deeply loved we are. Cancer taught me there is so much good out there in this world, and we are so lucky to be loved. I learned that a little group of 2nd graders could understand hard things. They counted down every day of radiation when I would go run to the hospital during prep and cheer when I returned to school afterward. I learned how much doctors and nurses care. I have been pretty darn lucky and have many good hand-holders and many smart people on my team. I learned that even bad hair is good hair, especially when you lose it all. Cancer taught me that little petty things don’t matter. Snuggling does matter, and messy rooms don’t. Cancer also taught me that my family is the most important.

One big lesson I wish my family hadn’t been forced to learn was my kids growing up too fast. If you ask anyone around them, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would be able to tell they had been through trauma. We handled everything together and with love and with care and consideration of each of their personalities. My kids have two parents who love them fiercely and put them all first, even when life was really tricky. But they all had to grow up a little faster and do things a little more independently earlier than I wished they had. My 18-month-old learned to just drink her bottle in the crib and put herself to sleep because I couldn’t hold her after my double mastectomy. When I needed to change her diaper, I would ask her to go and grab a diaper, and we would change her on the floor. I would bend down next to the car, and she would step on my leg to crawl into the car and her car seat so I could buckle her up easier. She is resilient and strong and capable of lots of things…but I so wish I could go back in time and snuggle her longer up against me. While my kids are amazing and strong and resilient…sometimes I wish they didn’t have to be. And mostly, I wish my oldest didn’t have to ever ask me, “mom do you think your cancer could come back and you might die”…we have had lots of wonderful conversations, and I am so proud of the work she has done…but I wish she didn’t have to.

Sometimes I get stuck in the hard stuff, and that’s what I wish cancer hadn’t done to me. I will notice myself having moments of getting stuck and angry that we were handed this awful hand, and that’s when I close my eyes and remember all the good stuff tucked away in my heart.

One pretty special thing cancer gave our family was that life can go on after hard stuff and that you can still have happiness and deserve good things even when life was hard. When I had finished treatment, I thought that I would forever just be the woman who had cancer and that I should just be happy I was alive. I thought I should tuck away any hopes and dreams that pre-cancer me had. Thankfully I had mentioned to a pretty special doctor that one of our pre-cancer dreams had been to have another baby, and he reminded me that just because I went through hard stuff didn’t mean I couldn’t still have happiness. Our little happiness came in the form of a special little baby named Cooper. Our family was blessed and so lucky to be able to have a baby after cancer. He makes our family full and crazy, and every single time I look at his sweet face, I remember how much hard stuff we went through to get to this happiness. The biggest lesson I learned from cancer is that you can have bad stuff happen to you, and you are still deserving of happiness.

So this Breast Cancer Awareness month, I have two things to ask of you all. The first is to check yourself for any changes and tell a friend to do the same. The second thing I am asking is that you check in on those friends who might need checking in. Life is just hard-and maybe not cancer hard-but hard in different ways. And I think showing up for a friend in need might be the greatest lesson we can all learn from my hard stuff. And find those tiny slivers of happiness in each day. Even on your hardest days, there is always some little glimmer of it.

Mama to 3 littles, wife to my high school sweetheart, lives in the Twin Cities and teaches a fantastic crew of 2nd graders! We have our own little zoo of 2 pups, a cat and 6 chickens and we love playing outside, exploring and spending time with friends and family! I'm a runner, yogi and fun lover who also kicked breast cancer in 2018! Founder of the Minnesota Breasties, a non-profit that supports women going through cancer. Big time fun lover and happy to be here with all of you! https://www.instagram.com/ashsaar/

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