Like most parents, Jennifer Collins often thinks about her children, and she can’t help but smile. They are beautiful, energetic, talented and compassionate.
But then there are times when that smile fades, when she goes to a darker place, wondering what life will be like for her 11-year-old daughter, Kalea, and 10-year-old son, Kade, when she is gone, when she loses her battle with stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
“… I thought about my prognosis, which wasn’t good,” Collins wrote earlier this month on her blog, LifeConfetti, following a shopping trip with Kalea. “Statistically, only 20 percent of those diagnosed with stage IV cancer will live past five years, most only living about two or three years.
“If that was true, my son would be without a mom by the time he was 11 or 12. … My daughter would be 12 or 13. … As much as I try to push those numbers and statistics out of my mind, there are times, like these days when I don’t feel well, that those thoughts come rushing back. Those thoughts can be overwhelming, suffocating and absolutely devastating. I am not afraid of dying, but I am terrified of leaving my children.”
Collins, 44, of Canonsburg, began writing her blog – which can be found on the Observer-Reporter website, http://www.observer-reporter.com/lifeconfetti – because, well, she’s always loved to write.
But writing has taken on so much more meaning these days.
Her blog, she said, has been “therapeutic,” and she has received good feedback, not to mention encouraging messages, many from people she doesn’t even know and others who also are battling stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
“It’s for other people, too,” she said. “If I can help other people, it gives me purpose. It’s cathartic. I have issues, but I can’t dwell on them.”
Collins’ journey with breast cancer began when she found a lump, about eight months after she received a prescription for a baseline mammogram. She had not yet turned 40.
“I kept it on a clip on the refrigerator forever,” Collins said, referring to the prescription.
When Collins showed her prescription to the nurse and told her that she had found a lump, the nurse told Collins she no longer needed a baseline mammogram; she needed a diagnostic mammogram.
“She asked to take a look at me. I studied her face as she examined the lump. Her bright eyes and cheery attitude suddenly dimmed. She became more professional as she asked me to step up to the machine,” Collins wrote. “Something in my heart knew that something was most definitely wrong. That is when I started to cry for the first time that day.”
Collins was then ushered into the waiting room, where she sat crying while awaiting the sonogram. Her husband, Mike, joined her.
“I saw him before he saw me. He was relaxed and looked as though the nurse just called him back to wait in another waiting room, unaware that there was a problem,” Collins wrote. “His face changed when he saw me crying. He knew something was wrong.”
After the technician completed the sonogram, the doctor arrived. She took the wand and started to move it around, staring at the images on the screen. She mentioned that she didn’t see anything, and a brief sense of relief washed over Collins.
“I thought maybe they’re wrong,” she said.
A few moments passed before the doctor said, “You have a suspicious mass. Most likely cancer. Will have to be removed. You will have to call a breast surgeon.”
Mike told his wife that “we’re going to beat this,” and that everything was going to be OK.
Collins wasn’t so sure. All sorts of questions began to race through her head. “Was I going to die? How much time did I have? Who would take care of my children?”
And that’s when it hit her.
“The thought of my children growing up without a mother was the most terrifying. I felt cheated. I felt robbed,” Collins wrote. “Mike and I tried for years to have children before we finally got pregnant with Kalea. Then, we were blessed to get pregnant again so quickly with Kade. They were only 5 and 6 years old! Was that all I was going to get? Was this all the time I was going to get to spend with the children that I prayed for and waited so long to have? Why would God finally bless me with children and then call me home?
“I made a promise to myself that I was going to treasure every moment, give them all the love I could give while I was still here. I couldn’t go down the dark road. I needed to stay positive and make the best of whatever time I had left. I wanted to hug them and kiss them and never let them go. I wanted to create lasting memories. I wanted them to remember me after I was gone. I wanted to be the best Mom I could be.”
Shortly before Labor Day 2013, Collins was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. She did everything her doctor suggested she could do to eradicate the cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation, had a double masectomy and began taking Tamoxifen, a medication that is prescribed for the prevention and treatment of cancer.
“I thought I was cancer-free,” Collins said.
For two years, she felt fine. Then she began to experience pain in her left elbow, and she had a cough. She knew something was wrong.
In September 2015, she learned that a few radical cancer cells had escaped into her bloodstream and spread to her lungs and bones. Her cancer was no longer curable.
“Like everyone on this Earth, each day is a day closer to my last. I just know that my last day is coming sooner than I expected,” Collins wrote. “I know that everyone is dying, but until you are told that you have a terminal illness, somehow, you don’t believe it. I know I didn’t before my diagnosis. It’s different. That sense of urgency is exhausting though. I try to balance everything. I want to fit in as much as I possibly can, but there are days when I don’t have the energy to do so.
“Most days, I keep it all in check. I always said if there were a 100 people in a room, I wouldn’t be the first person anyone would guess was dying of cancer. I wanted it that way, not being defined by my illness. Still, there were days that my reality got the best of me. There were days when the thought of leaving my children motherless pierced me right through the heart. …
“I don’t want to nap my days away. I want to cling tightly to my children, but I want to teach them to grow away from me to make it easier for when I am no longer here. I want to live in the ‘now,’ but I want to prepare for the future. It is constant juggling of raw emotions, limited energy and difficult choices.”
Collins continues to do whatever she can to beat the cancer. She is now taking IBRANCE, the first FDA-approved medication that, when combined with certain hormonal therapies, works to stop cell growth and division in hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer. Her last three scans have been good.
“Every day is a gift,” Collins said. “There are a lot of days that I’ve been sick. I live every day for the moment.”