By Gabrielle. Photos by Karen E. Photography.
Diane is a person who doesn’t like to waste time. I quite enjoy that quality in people, don’t you? And, in fact, Diane possesses a truckful of enviable qualities I could either list from one to one hundred — or you could just read the words she’s left here with us today.
If you’re feeling not-so-strong, I encourage you to stick around for Diane. If you’re feeling scared or alone or overwhelmed, please stay. This is one to read now and come back to later. I promise. Welcome, Diane. I am so glad you’re here.
My name is Diane and I don’t like to beat around the bush. Ha! How’s that for an introduction? Chit-chat makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have a poker face, and I am compelled to acknowledge the elephant in the room. He’s too distracting! I’m a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom who is a tomboy at heart yet loves a maxi dress on occasion. I can’t live without my running shoes and feel freest on the trails at sunrise.
I created this unbelievable family with my soft-spoken, brilliant husband, Will, who is wise beyond his years (which are three less than mine) and utterly unflappable. He can grow a five o’clock shadow well before noon, and I am lucky to have him as the captain of my pompom squad. Like any smart girl who was raised by a wonderfully supportive father, I looked for the boy who was most like him and then I married him.
When Will and I were engaged, I said, “I want to have two girls so we can give them each one of our sisters’ names.” It’s like I proclaimed it from that moment! Dylan Christine was the first and nothing makes me happier than the special bond she shares with my confidante and sister, Chrissy. Dylan has always been acutely observant and very emotionally intelligent. She thrives on social interaction and asked at two years old to go to school so she could “play with little boys and little girls.” Story time at the library simply wasn’t enough! Dylan truly smiles from her heart and I could stare into her blue-gray eyes for the rest of my life and be happy.
Taylor Camille is our little goof who giggles when she toots and then turns around and proclaims that she is never ever eating dinner again. I don’t know if my sister-in-law, Cami, wants to lay claim to either of these traits! But Taylor will hug and kiss you until you feel that everything is right with the world. She is immensely creative, innately funny, and she is going to blaze her own trails for sure. Taylor was simply born with a confidence that is written all over her face, and when she catches my eye and flashes a knowing wink, my heart melts every time.
Lastly, our house never feels quite right without a Great Dane. Will and I adopted our first Dane, Cash, before we were even married. My dad had just died and I was in desperate need of some emotional relief. Cash saw me through a lot of grief, two big moves across the country, a wedding, and two babies before his big body simply gave out. The emptiness Cash left was finally filled two years later when we found our current Dane, Bogus. He is a 120-pound pillow for the girls and the best guard dog almost to a fault. I joke that I always like to have two men in my life and Bogus loves nothing more than warming the other side of the bed when Will is out of town.
We are lucky enough to live in the best-kept secret in the US: Boise, Idaho. I can’t imagine loving a place more! It is just so easy to live here; crime is low, schools are good, and the cost of living is moderate. Will says that in Boise there isn’t a work-life balance, there is simply life. People are super friendly and the pace of everything is enjoyable. We can’t go anywhere without running into someone we know, and that to me makes Boise home.
We live in the historic North End of Boise, which is perfectly located for walking to dinner, biking downtown, and scootering to school. Our neighborhood is picturesque with its tree-lined streets and hosts the best Halloween celebration you will ever witness each and every year. The North End butts up against the Boise foothills, so skiing, kayaking, trail running and mountain biking are staples. We could have a lot more space and a brand new house if we moved to another neighborhood, but we wouldn’t trade our active lifestyle for all the closet space in the world!
Boise is the most isolated metropolitan city in the lower 48 so you don’t just happen upon it. You have to come here with purpose. “What brought you to Boise?” is probably the most frequently asked question when you meet someone for the first time. In our case, we came for Will’s faculty position at Boise State but we are staying because of the vibrant, supportive community we have become a part of.
We knew when we moved to Boise that the North End was the only place we really wanted to live. We had visited twice before for Will’s interviews so we started house hunting immediately. The North End is a smorgasbord of architectural styles, but the craftsman bungalow is one of the most highly sought after. Because a lot of the houses are much older than the suburban cookie cutter I grew up in, most have been through numerous renovations. We all know that renovations can be hit or miss as far as taste and craftsmanship so the North End can be really tricky!
When we walked into our house for the first time I knew it was special. The layout made sense, most major systems had been updated, and it was a craftsman bungalow built in 1910. For eight years now, it has been the perfect blend of old and new. Don’t get me wrong — we only have one proper closet in the whole house and the pipes to the washing machine freeze at least once a winter, but I love sitting on the front porch and thinking of all the residents who came before us over 100 years. The doorknobs are original, as are the bookcases in the living room, but we are spoiled by central air and a new master bathroom.
We thought we would live in these 1400 square feet for five years or so and then trade up, but the bottom fell out just months after we bought. As first-time homeowners, this was terrifying! We were stretched on a mortgage for a house that wasn’t worth what we paid for it, but we had faith that our neighborhood was special and the market has finally come back stronger than ever. Now we’re so attached to our neighbors that we are looking at creative ways of finding more space without moving — closing up the hallway to build a closet for the girls’ room, opening up the garage to the backyard to create a play space, or possibly even jacking up the house to dig out a basement. Yikes! Will’s not exactly on board with that one yet…
I have tried in my own way to create a home that feels as warm as a hug. I am a homebody at heart and want nothing more than to be comfortable at home. Our small place in this big world is filled with things that spark wonderful memories and feelings of gratitude.
Will surprised me with the leather chair from a local shop for my fortieth birthday and I love to sit in it every day. The kitchen shelves are filled with beautiful cards from friends and family that got us through a very trying time. The flag in the dining room was presented to the family at Will’s grandfather’s funeral for which he was a pallbearer back in high school. The bluebird and the lion above the couch were both gifts from local artists who we also consider to be good friends. The drawing of the girls gives me goose bumps just thinking about it being hand-delivered on the night before my surgery. And Dylan is so proud of the Auction for the Arts banner featuring her blue ribbon-winning George Washington is a Wild Cat art piece.
I have a graduate degree in architecture and have been known to curate my Pinterest boards into the wee hours, but in the end practicality wins out. The couch isn’t much to look at, but it makes one helluva fort and it can fit all of the kids on our block for a movie. The Christmas lights dangle in the living room all year because their soft glow soothes me and I love to hear Taylor say, “Mommy, I plugged in your favorite twinkle lights for you!”
Last August, at the ripe old age of 40, I was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer called invasive ductal carcinoma. My left breast, which had faithfully nursed two babies without incident, was harboring a tumor that could kill me. I was trail running and mountain biking five to six times a week. I was drinking kale smoothies and eating whole grains. My sister is a dietitian, for crying out loud! I had no risk factors and no family history. I was floored.
What immediately followed was a whirlwind of research, advice, doctor appointments, and medical terminology that was foreign to me. I ever-so-sarcastically used to give Will a hard time for not having any practical skills that served me directly. He doesn’t cut hair, fix cars, or renovate houses. Well, after my diagnosis, my methodical scientist of a husband went into world-class researcher mode to learn everything he could about breast cancer. While I was trying to wrap my head around what was going to happen to me, he was contacting his medical colleagues and putting them through the ringer about the latest studies and treatment options. I have never been more appreciative of Will’s professional skills!
A month later, I went in for a lumpectomy and partial lymph node dissection to see if the cancer had spread. Waiting for the surgeon’s call was pure torture. Holding out hope but not knowing is the worst. It turned out that the lymph nodes looked pretty clean but the lumpectomy didn’t get it all. So a month later, I went back in for a single mastectomy.
In the meantime, the tumor was sent away for thorough analysis and it was determined that chemotherapy would greatly reduce my chances of recurrence.
I learned the hard way that young, vibrant women often get the more aggressive of the cancers. I like to think the cancer knows it has to be more aggressive to take us down! So after a lot of tears, I scheduled six rounds of chemo (one every three weeks) from November through March and tried to avoid all of the major holidays.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was right out of college. I had lived a charmed life up until that point and the diagnosis devastated me. It was an eight-year roller coaster ride from that point forward. He would reach a stable point where we could live our lives normally and then he would suddenly need emergency surgery. It caused me to have anxiety attacks for the first time in my life.
So when my own diagnosis was delivered to me, I sobbed to my husband, “I don’t want to get back on that roller coaster!” I was immediately transported back and my heart remembered the fear so clearly.
And of course I was petrified of leaving my girls without a mother. They were just newly six and almost four when I was diagnosed. Losing a parent so young inevitably shapes children’s lives. I was 31 when my dad died and for nine years I had been trying to come to terms with it. I desperately didn’t want that for them.
Remembering back to this time is unsettling. I can now see myself from the outside. I wish I could say, “Oh, Diane. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Everything will be ok. It will be what you feared most and it will still be ok. More than ok. In the end, you will feel stronger and more confident than ever. Diane, you will feel like you are conquering the world and in many ways you are! Your fears aren’t founded in reality.”
Ten months later and I have so much more experience and wisdom. I have so much calm and fight. And I have so much PRIDE.
After my diagnosis, I spent a couple of weeks calling family and friends to let them know. It is the worst feeling to have bad news yet hear the happiness in someone’s voice when they answer your call. Your voice quivers as you blindside them with your words. Then you both cry and it is a relief because now you can face it together.
When I reached the point of emotional exhaustion, I told Will I needed to put it on social media. This terrified my poor introverted husband, but I needed people to know without having to say the words anymore.
I learned an important lesson with that first post: If I asked for what I needed, my friends would deliver. There was an immediate outpouring of love and encouragement that blew me away. I instantly felt less alone.
I posted regularly from that point forward and things just snowballed. I took selfies each day as I updated everyone on what I was doing and how I was feeling. Somewhere along the way I found my sense of humor and the selfies got more creative — especially once I was bald!
I was laughing and everyone was laughing with me. Don’t get me wrong, there were bad days and lots of tears and I shared those, too. But I shared them with the confidence that my friends would cry with me and then lift me up. I told Will one day that I kept waiting to feel the gravity of the situation and get scared or even depressed. My thoughtful husband simply replied, “Babe, this is your true spirit coming out.”
Early on I realized that everyone was looking to me to dictate how this journey was going to go — how they were supposed to act and what they were supposed to say. At first this seemed like a daunting responsibility, but then I found real power in it.
I realized that I had looked to my dad in the same way. My amazingly sweet daddy was very quiet and stoic about what he was going through. I’m sure he was trying to protect us, but it left me always wondering how he was really doing and scared of what was to come. My honesty put everyone at ease because there was no guessing. I had destroyed the emotional roller coaster!
Little did I know at the time that all of my selfies would be used in a local tv interview in the spring right before Boise’s Race for the Cure. If I thought I had a supportive community before, after the interview aired it felt like the entire city was cheering me on! What a gift! Perfect strangers high-fived me on the street and little old ladies hugged me and welcomed me into their survivor’s club. It’s amazing how easily a bald lady can be spotted in a crowd. Ha!
I have had numerous people confide in me that their friend, aunt, or coworker was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and ask what they should do in support of these women. I try to tread lightly with advice because I only know my own experiences, but I usually say not to wait for permission. When I was in the midst of doctor appointments and treatments, I didn’t always have it in me to make a decision like yes or no, chicken or beef, but everything that was ever delivered to my house was met with a lot of gratitude.
The thought really is what counts and when you feel like your world has stopped and everyone else’s is still spinning, it is nice to be reminded that someone is thinking of you. So send a card or drop off cookies or even text a little encouragement. Whatever comes from the heart with good intentions will be received with appreciation.
It makes me very proud to think that I faced cancer with my kids by my side. Through many ups and downs, I am happy to say that my husband and I figured out how to turn our tears into laughter and our fear into joy. We turned our bed into a sanctuary for cuddles and story times when I was too tired to get up. We turned our dining room table into a puzzle table when I was too sick to eat. We turned our kitchen into a dance club when I was itching to move my sore body. And we turned our living room into a neighborhood movie theater when I wanted to be surrounded by friends but couldn’t be exposed to the germs of the general public.
Through it all we were super honest with our girls about what was happening. We found that they were like two little nurses who loved taking care of their mommy. It’s amazing what our children can do when we let them! They removed bandages, cleaned incisions, and hugged and kissed me when I cried. We cut our hair short as a family and our girls strutted around like proud peacocks telling people that their mommy was going to lose her hair. A few weeks later they told me they loved me even though I was bald but they preferred me with hair. Ha! I always appreciate their honesty.
I used to want nothing more for my girls than a protected, carefree life like the one I had before cancer entered it. I have learned firsthand that they can handle a lot more than that and so can I.
I now want them to have authentic experiences as life is, as it should be. These experiences that we wouldn’t have wished for but show us what we’re really made of are some of the most precious.
I’ve had numerous well-intentioned people say that they are sorry this happened to me. I tell them not to be. I wouldn’t give back this experience and all of its gifts for anything.
I hope my girls think back to this time and remember that we faced a difficult time together. I hope they are proud of the role they played. I will remind them that I couldn’t have done it with as much strength and humility without them because through it all they saw me as the same mommy before, during, and after. There would have been a lot more tears and self-doubt without their innocence and genuine devotion to ground me.
I hope they remember this house being filled with more silliness than sadness. I hope they remember dancing to Shake It Off turned up loud because I stopped caring what I looked like. I hope they remember getting Bogus in bed with us because I stopped worrying about the comforter getting dirty. And I hope they remember that I did everything I could to be here for them as long as possible.
My therapist encouraged me to write throughout my treatments. She said it would help me process my thoughts and emotions. At first it seemed too fresh and overwhelming to touch, but then I realized I wanted to have my story all in one place for Dylan and Taylor; and I suppose for myself, too. So when they say, “Mommy, weren’t you bald once?” we can look at 20gr8.com and read about how we survived breast cancer as a family and came out stronger for it.
Until then, I am sharing my story with other women who find themselves in similar predicaments. I have met enough women now to know that I am just one of many young, otherwise healthy mothers struck by this disease.
I am told that there is still an 8% chance that my cancer will return in my bones or my brain to kill me. I will be closely monitored, as most cancer patients are. I hope my girls see one day that instead of living in fear, I am letting that 8% fuel me to pursue my wildest dreams. To speak up. To go for it. To live bigger. To help all those I can.
I wish someone had told me how strong I was and I had listened. It might not have taken 40 years and a cancer diagnosis for me to figure it out on my own.
I have lived too much of my life in fear. Fear of not being good enough. Not being graceful enough or feminine enough. No more. I have faced my nightmare and turned it into a dream. Now I know without a doubt that I am enough. I have no control over how much time I have left in this life, but I am in control of who I will be while I’m here.
I hope my dad is out there somewhere saying, “I knew it all along.”
Well, I can’t seem to get this one out of my heart: “I hope they remember this house being filled with more silliness than sadness. I hope they remember dancing to Shake It Off turned up loud because I stopped caring what I looked like. I hope they remember getting Bogus in bed with us because I stopped worrying about the comforter getting dirty. And I hope they remember that I did everything I could to be here for them as long as possible.” Gulp. May we all stop worrying about cleaning up messes for today, at least, and focus our hearts instead on making them. And then there’s this: “Perfect strangers high-fived me on the street and little old ladies hugged me and welcomed me into their survivor’s club.” The very thought of a lovely, lovely, unofficial yet very true survivor’s club just stole my breath for a minute. Thank you isn’t enough, Diane.
I am so moved by how Diane and her husband involved their girls in her treatment. “I used to want nothing more for my girls than a protected, carefree life like the one I had before cancer entered it. I have learned firsthand that they can handle a lot more than that and so can I.”
She’s right: Kids are powerful little heroes, too. We might just have to help them tie their capes, that’s all.
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.