I’m going to start this with the statement that I never, NEVER, thought I’d get a tattoo. Like, never, ever, ever. I had absolutely no opposition to them, I just didn’t see myself tatted up. But, then, life happened.
My 19 year old son, Justin, met a kid in elementary school named Connor G. They became fast friends and were both excited to learn that they shared the exact same birthday. They got to be really good friends in middle school and that carried into high school. Over the years, I have watched them grow from young boys to middle schoolers to high schoolers to grown men. I’m not even sure how they’re grown men with facial hair already?!
As young boys, they would have sleepovers, watch movies, play video games, ride bikes, and whatever it is that boys get into. They played on the middle school soccer team together and then later on the high school soccer team.
When they were in 6th grade (I think – I’m sketchy on the timeline. I know the boys were in middle school.), Connor’s mom, Joy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m not sure if it was the first time she’d been diagnosed with it or not though.
Joy was the first person I actually knew who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I couldn’t imagine how Joy, her husband John, or their two young boys Connor and Noah, were feeling. At that time, it was several years before I would be diagnosed with breast cancer, so I just (naïvely) assumed that you had surgery and chemo and you’d be fine. Joy and John walked in the Oaks Day Survivor’s Walk the day before the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and 2012.
What I remember most about Joy is her smile. She just lit up when she smiled. I so wish I had known Joy much better than I did as “Connor’s mom”. Of course we talked when the boys spent the night at each other’s house, at school functions and soccer games. But, I wouldn’t say I knew her well. Still, I prayed for her all the time, that the Lord would give her success in her breast cancer journey.
Unfortunately, Joy’s cancer could not be healed on this side of heaven and God called her to Him on Saturday, September 22, 2012. I remember the great sadness I felt that she wasn’t going to be here to grow old with her husband and to watch her boys grow up. My heart hurt so badly for them and for those that knew and loved her.
Tony, Justin, and I went to visitation services a couple of nights before her funeral. We stood in line and hugged John, Noah, and Connor. Then, in a beautiful, heartfelt display of pure sportsmanship, the entire high school varsity and JV soccer teams showed up in their uniforms, giving support and love to their team member’s family. It was an incredible moment that generated a flow of tears and almost brought me to my knees. To this day, I still tear up when I think about that moment when I turned and saw the whole soccer team come in. It was truly beautiful.
Justin and I went to Joy’s funeral on Tuesday after she passed. What I remember most about the day is that it was pouring rain. I mean, it was raining SO hard and SO heavy. I remember sitting in Shelby Christian Church and thinking that the heavenly angels must be crying alongside every one of us in that church. It was a beautiful service and one that truly changed me. I distinctly remember sitting in the church, promising God and myself that I was going to take better care of my health. That I wanted to be here with and for my kids and to do so, I needed to cut out the junk food and start exercising.
Throughout my life, I’ve never really struggled with my weight so I didn’t find it necessary to exercise routinely before. But I knew it would help me with controlling my type 1 diabetes. I’d always had a perfectly acceptable A1C, but I knew I could do better.
Because of Joy, I also began being serious about performing my own monthly breast self-exams. (If you aren’t doing them, please, PLEASE, don’t let the sun go down TODAY without starting this very important and life saving task). And because of this, I found my own lump in late April, 2014.
I have always credited Joy and Jesus with the finding of my breast cancer so early. I’d had a routine mammogram in February 2014 and if not for the self-exams I was doing, if I was only relying on my routine mammograms, the earliest my cancer would have been discovered would have been February 2015, or even February 2016 (I can’t remember now if at that time they were recommended every year or every other year for my age group). You couldn’t feel my lump if I was lying on my back, only if I was sitting up. My gyn said she couldn’t even feel it when I was on the exam table.
Regardless, my point is, if I hadn’t sat through Joy’s funeral, with tears flowing and rain pouring, I probably wouldn’t have began taking my own health so seriously. And I probably wouldn’t be here today. Joy and Jesus, I’m telling you. I.am.telling.you!!!
When I received my own breast cancer diagnosis, Joy’s husband, John, brought me a huge plastic bin filled with chemo caps. Everything you could possibly imagine was in that box. Thin caps, wooly caps, scarves, bandannas. And I was so grateful for his kind heart. (And I still have that box that I need to get back to them – so embarrassing that I’ve had it this long! ☺️) I felt close to her wearing the same chemo caps that she had worn going through a similar journey.
A couple years ago I was writing the Fruits of the Spirit in my planner. I didn’t keep that planner and I wish I had. Anyway, I do NOT really like my handwriting, especially when I write in cursive. I type just about everything because my writing gets sloppy and unreadable as I write. But on this day I was actually writing something other than doctor appointments in my planner. (Lol!) I remember writing “joy” in my planner in cursive lowercase letters and somehow my planner got shifted as I took a phone call, so that I saw the word in a totally new way. And it was in that moment that I knew it would be a really cool tattoo, as a tribute to Joy, and to our journeys with a beast called “breast cancer”. What I saw as my planner sat turned upside down was two cancer ribbons in the loops of the “j” and “y”.
I thought it would be a cool tattoo to have, but I didn’t know any tattoo artists (then, anyway!) and I didn’t really know if I’d be able to actually go through with getting one (this type 1 diabetic was afraid of the needles!). Since that time, I have met a super sweet, super talented, tattoo artist (Louisa Kleinert at Bluebird Ink Beautique) and have gotten my aerola tattoos from her (they’re AMAZING! No, you can’t see them!). I asked Louisa about this “joy” tattoo idea and she was on board with however I wanted it to look, but she suggested placing it on the side of my wrist, as opposed to on the top or bottom of my wrist like I’d initially thought. Like, I am N-O-T an artist so I didn’t know if it was a terrible idea or what. But, it’s very simple, yet totally meaningful to me, personally.
So I saw Louisa today and got my first tattoo that can be seen, unlike my nipple tattoos (lol!). I selected the placement to go on my right wrist. My cancer was in the right breast and it just seemed to make more sense. I originally thought I’d do the placement on the top or bottom of my wrist but Louisa suggested the outside edge of my wrist. It’s different, but I thought long and hard about it and decided that’s what I’d do.
Joy, this is my tribute to you; a pink ribbon for your journey, and a pink ribbon for my journey. I have loved watching Connor become a man and I know you’re so proud of him and Noah. Thank you for your brave battle, and for waking me up to take better care of myself. I’ll forever be grateful to you and your family.
Jesus, this is my thank you to you for covering me with your protection through that storm. I am so grateful and thankful that I’m still here, breathing, living, fighting through another day.
I have been writing this post for a couple of weeks now and I have shed MANY tears every time I add to or edit this post. This true story is so deeply personal to me and I hold the memories close to my heart. If you take anything from this, please don’t skip out on your monthly self breast exams and mammograms. Don’t let the sun go down TODAY without making a plan for both. Both are vitally important and life-saving. Don’t not do it out of fear of “what if”. Trust me when I say that your odds are much better if you catch anything early than later. You are your own best advocate for your health. It’s easy to put everyone else in your family first, but, Mama’s, you’ve got to take care of you. Whether it’s a dental cleaning, routine physical, mental health therapy, mammograms or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you’ve got to make yourself a priority. Because if you don’t take care of you, who will take care of them? (Yes, I know dads care take care of them too, but we all need our mama at certain points in our lives.) Please, promise yourself (or promise your kids if you need a stronger push) that YOU will take care of YOU. It’s not selfish. It’s absolutely necessary.
So this is my story of breast cancer, Jesus, and Joy. My story of how of how a woman with no risk factors or history of breast cancer, ended up fighting and beating the snot out of that pink ribbon cancer.
“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” Psalm 126:3 NIV
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.”
James 1:2 NLT
The verses that carried me through my cancer were these words – the Lord created me (and us all) to handle the hard stuff and for me, this reminder is what got me through:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.” Psalm 139:13-18 NIV
Sweet Joy (I swiped this from her Facebook page so I don’t know who took it and I hope it’s ok I am using it!)
Connor (left) and Justin (right) from 2014 (top) and 2015 (bottom). I wish I had this picture all the years they played high school soccer together.
📸: Louisa Kleinert 😘😘