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If Cancer Didn't Kill Me

| This is the 581st story of Our Life Logs® |

I was born in a small city down the coast of Croatia in 1954. As a child, I was always full of imagination. I think it is safe to say that I got my spunk from my father. My father was a very funny man while my mother was a very bossy woman who was sometimes hard to deal with. It made for a volatile household. My mother fought with my father over anything and everything. Still, I found happiness and escape by playing with my two sisters in all the make-believe worlds that I could dream up.

But then high school came, and things started to shift. September 1, 1969. It was the first day of high school, and I went into the admission office to apply to become a chef in the school’s program, and there he was. He kind of looked like trouble, so I paid him no mind at first. But, I guess he took interest in me because he walked up and pushed me to the ground. I’m not sure why, but I hated him at that moment. All I wanted to do was kick his ass. He was lucky he was cute.

Little by little, we started to talk, and I started to like him. I was just 15 years old back then and rather naive about life and boys. He was a year older and had more experience than I did. Getting to know each other through little chats and meet-ups, we fell in love, and later, we married. I will never forget the day we met. My husband found this date so important, he got it tattooed on his arm.

We married soon after graduating. I was only 18, and he was 19. Of course, I learned that falling in love doesn’t automatically make for a perfect life. After getting married, he expressed an interest in pursuing higher education. Since we didn’t have kids yet and we were young, I agreed to move to the capital city with him so he could go to school. I figured I could handle supporting us until he graduated.

But things didn’t go down the way I pictured at all. He started to go out every night, chasing girls. It was as if marriage was not what he wanted. What was once certain and full of possibilities was now a minefield.

I remember the time he didn’t come back for three days. No one knew where he was. I didn’t sleep or eat. I alarmed police, called hospitals… nothing. No one knew where he was. When he finally did return, he was dead drunk, telling me not to panic, that he had been partying in Italy with his friends.

I wish I left at that moment, but I didn’t. I was young, dumb, and in love.

It went downhill from that point on. Both our conservative backgrounds ruled out even the notion of divorce, so, I settled into the rest of my life with my husband. His absence and stepping around his drinking became my norm and, with time, I became numb to such things.

Eight years later, we had our first child. A daughter. A beautiful daughter. I was so happy because we’d been trying to conceive since we got married. I’d visited every doctor and specialist, trying to figure out what is wrong with me and why I couldn’t have children. Every doctor we went to said nothing was wrong with us, but one did suggest there might be a mental blockage due to some ongoing issues. He had no idea how right he was. Subconsciously, I didn’t want to have children with him, but I didn’t know that at that moment.

Me, holding my first-born daughter.

After giving birth to my oldest daughter, I had another daughter two years later, then my son two years after that. My husband was anything but an ideal father, but I did everything to give my three babies a good life. I would go to work in a hotel kitchen, come home, cook for my family, wash, clean, iron… everything I could for them. I wanted their childhoods to be normal. Happy. Full of goodness. But with their father’s constant aggression, partying, drinking, mistresses… life was anything but.

Despite all that, I was lucky to have my kids grow up to be honest, educated, and happy people. I guess they saw what being a bad person does to a family and they wanted to be different from what their father was. As they became adults and I grew older, my kids were always there for me.

I thank the heavens for that.

With my two sisters and some of our kids. I’m in the polka-dotted dress.

I’d just turned 55 when my company requested that their employees get a standard checkup. Working in a hotel can take a toll on the body, and the hotel just wanted to make sure everyone was in good shape.

I was happy to get checked out because I’d been feeling exhausted (no matter how long I’d sleep or how many cups of coffee I drank). I had this sort of brain fog and felt dizzy at times. I knew something had to be wrong. You can always sense when something isn’t right with your body. I hadn't told my family about these health concerns, keeping a brave face for my kids, especially. From time to time, my husband would notice I am always tired and would check on me, but I always said, “I’m fine, just tired.”

It was cold and rainy on the day of the checkup. I arrived two hours early because I was so nervous. As I entered the doctor’s office, I had a strange feeling this wouldn’t go well. And I was right. While the doctor was examining my right breast, he noticed a concerning lump. He sent me to a specialist for an x-ray.

A couple of days later, I received a call from the doctor’s office. In my country, doctors only call if it is urgent or if you are dying. That is why my heart sunk when the phone rang. Perhaps, I could ignore it? No, no, it wouldn’t change the outcome. I answered the phone while holding my breath, preparing for the bad news.

I had stage four breast cancer. They needed to conduct an urgent surgery to help stop the cancer from killing me.

I was baffled. I ate healthily and was always on the move as a mother-of-three. I just didn’t get it. Terrified thoughts flitted through my head. How would I manage all this? Would it be painful? Would my children be ok without me if I died? I didn’t want them to lose their mother. Being in such a toxic marriage, it was hard to think positive thoughts about if I would survive. A lot of what-ifs flew through my head, but I didn’t have much time for these kinds of thoughts. I had to tell my family the news and work to schedule the surgery.

Luckily, my oldest daughter worked in the hospital that was conducting the surgery and lived nearby, so she was able to be there to care of everything. It can be hard to have treatment on time in our country, so having this inside connection was—quite literally—a lifesaver.

Within a week of getting the news, I was in my daughter’s place, preparing for the surgery. It was scheduled for early December, right at the beginning of the holiday season.

I was scared. I’d never gone through any surgery in my life, and this was something new for me.

On the day of the surgery, the nurse issued me pills at 6 AM to prepare me for surgery. The pill calmed me down (probably meant to do just that so I wouldn’t freak out and change my mind about the surgery). All I remember after that is waking up in a disoriented daze, being told the surgery had gone well, and seeing that the place where my right breast had been was barren. It was sad, of course, but my smoothed chest also meant the cancerous monster had been removed from my body.

After a few days, I was out of the hospital and back to my daughter’s place. It turned out that surgery was the easy part. Although the cancer had been removed, they now had to make sure the cancer cells wouldn’t try to come back. So, I had to go through chemotherapy for the next two months.

To put it plainly, chemo was hell. And anyone who has gone through chemo knows it’s not a picnic. I had no energy at all. Around my third chemotherapy treatment, I started to lose my hair. I remember going to the bathroom to take a shower. After I finished shampooing and scrubbing, I went to comb my hair, only to discover the large clumps between its teeth. I was expecting such a scenario, but I felt so depressed. I felt like less of a woman. It was really hard to move past that image.

Thankfully, my daughter was more than willing to help with everything I needed. I wasn’t used to getting help from others in doing things. As a wife, I had been the one to clean up every empty bottle and messy behavior. As a mother, I was the one picking up toys, folding clothes, and planning every meal and outing. This kindness and care I was being shown—at a time when I could not reciprocate or pitch in a little—was so unfamiliar. I realized then how blessed I truly was. I had people who were truly there for me. I decided that if I made it past this, I was going to live my life to the fullest. I just had to make it past this huge, difficult hump.

Days went by slowly, but after two months of hell, I was able to go back to my family fully cancer-free!

It was hard at first, but I slowly became my old self again. After a few months, my hair started to grow back and I asked my other daughter to dye my hair brown like it used to be. She was so excited that she immediately went to the store to get the dye. So funny! The love I received from my family made me feel stronger and so much happier. I started to go out in public, do my everyday chores, but this time, with much more joy. The fact that I was alive and able to do all those things again without feeling dizzy was monumental. I felt young again! After all the years of abnormality, I needed a little normal.

Although the risks I faced were scary, I became braver. I suppose it is what happened when you see a whole new side of life. I became selective in what I did (I stopped wasting my time) and with whom I shared my time. After years of letting my husband push me around, I started to tell him exactly what I wanted to see from him. I stood up for myself. Despite it all, I still loved that man. I never left, but I sure didn’t let him mistreat me anymore! Our relationship has turned into something so much better.

Me—healthy, happy, and stealing my daughter’s exercise bike!

Today, I am healthy and have been cancer-free for 12 years. I have become fearless—even if that means saying no to annoying sellers and insignificant obligations. That person didn’t exist before my experience with cancer. Or, maybe she did somewhere deep inside me, but I just didn’t know it. Today, nothing can faze me. Every time I go through some hardship in life, my mantra is always the same: if cancer didn’t kill me, this won’t either.

This is the story of Angie Rhoades

Angie was born in 1954 in a small town down the coast of Croatia. After years of being a wife in a difficult marriage and giving her all to her three children, Angie was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in the recovery period from the surgery that she was able to accept the love and help from her children and friends that she had always deserved. Her near-death experience taught her how to become fearless and more joyful.

She is a chef and an amazing mother to three adult children. She likes plants a lot and loves taking care of them. She has a house full of plants, whether others like it or not. She is Virgo, which means she is super tidy on an OCD level. She hates when her daughter keeps everything on the end of the table because it messes with her OCD and how she imagined it. Cancer-free 12 years now, she has a stronger love for life and every little detail of it.

This story first touched our hearts on March 15, 2020

Writer: Lilith Ash | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker

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