By: Stacy Armijo
What did you do for your 40th birthday? Celebrate with family & friends? Take a trip? Mourn the bygone days of your 30s? I had a great 40th birthday, orchestrated by my husband and entailing perfect portions of family time, friend time and me time. As one who doesn’t ascribe much meaning to the numbers that signify my age, I enjoyed it, and life went on. Meanwhile, a few weeks later, I decided it was time to have some insignificant, but annoyingly persistent, symptoms checked out. Obviously, I thought nothing was really wrong – after all, I was only 40 and in the best physical shape I had been in since my teens – but it was the responsible thing to do.
Any other 40-something woman would have started to worry after the first doctor’s visit turned into a second, and the mammogram became an ultrasound, which became an MRI, which became an MRI-guided biopsy. But not me. I merely started to wonder skeptically if my medical insurance was really that good. That is, until the doctor called and said two words: “It’s cancer.”
My response: “I’m sorry, what?”
Despite a relatively long lead up, it had never really entered my mind that I could be looking at breast cancer. After all, we had basically no family history, I thought I’m way too young and it just wasn’t in my realm of awareness… until it was. And fast.
Less than a week after I was diagnosed, I was in outpatient surgery for a chemotherapy port while lymph nodes were removed to gauge the extent of my cancer. The conclusion: stage 3 invasive breast cancer, which would require 20 weeks of chemotherapy, breast surgery and 6.5 weeks of radiation.
In less than one month, we went from our biggest problems being whatever was going on at work or with our 9- and 5-year-old sons, to something entirely unexpected. While I’d never wish that experience on anyone, I can say I find myself surprised at the primary emotion it left me with: gratitude.
That might sound surprising, since emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, hurt or desperation might seem more natural. While I had moments of many of those, gratitude was far more common, and that’s because I was fortunate in so many ways…
- I was young & otherwise healthy, with good health insurance and an amazing network of support.
- The leader of that support network was my husband, who is a stay-at-home Dad and lifelong learner. He took care of our boys, learned everything Google can teach you about breast cancer and was the General of what we came to call the #ArmijoArmy.
- I had friends who knew the world of Central Texas cancer care inside and out, helping me find my way to excellent care givers and giving me confidence along the way.
- I won the cancer care lottery, experiencing almost none of the symptoms common through my treatments. With the help of good medication and good genes, I ate like a horse, slept like a baby and recovered like a champ.
- I had an employer who was as supportive as it’s possible to be, giving me every opportunity to dial down my engagement, and most important to me, leaving the choice not to dial back in my
In short, I didn’t know that my 40th year would be my moment to add some “iron” to the “butterfly” I’d been working on all my life, but it was. Emerging from that experience – having been diagnosed as “free of known disease” before my 41stbirthday – I can’t say I feel like a fundamentally different person. I can, however, say I feel I have something new to share and something new to give. Here’s why…
If there was ever a day you were going to question your life choices, it is the day you discover you’ll spend at least the next six months fighting for your life. On that particular day, I found myself in a business group where the meeting leader asked a question: “If you could give your 18-year-old self advice, what would it be?” Most in our group said things like, “Don’t worry so much,” or “Take that trip.” Encountering this question a few hours after learning I would undergo the triple threat of cancer treatment, losing all my hair and being unsure of the outcome, here’s what I wrote: “Do everything exactly as you did it, because it brought you to where you are and that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
It wasn’t a gimmick or an attempt at a personal pick-me-up, it was a sincere response for how I felt in the moment. On reflection, I think it was inspired by a tenant that guides my outlook in most areas of life, which I first heard Steve Harvey say: “In everything, there’s a lesson and a blessin’.”
I find it meaningful because it doesn’t presume any conclusions for our lives, merely commitments. Whatever it is that comes our way, we have an obligation to find within it the “lesson” and the “blessin.” In doing so, we add a little more iron to the butterflies we’re constantly creating, and we just might find the secret to happiness.
Like many secrets, the key to happiness wants to be shared, and that’s best done by helping those who don’t enjoy the same good fortune you do. I’m doing that by supporting The Big Pink Bus, which is a mobile mammography unit taking breast cancer screenings to women in need throughout Central Texas. They’re not blessed with the good health insurance I am, so the lesson I’ve taken is to use my voice and talents to help put The Big Pink Bus back onto Central Texas roads. If you’d like to help, please consider a contribution and thank you for helping save lives in Central Texas.
Stacy Armijo is a wife to Ronnie; mother to Ronnie Jr. (10) and William (6); and an avid community leader. By day, she’s the Chief Experience Officer for Amplify Credit Union, a $1B financial cooperative based in Austin, Texas. In the community, she’s a member of the Board of Directors for the American Marketing Association, American Red Cross of Central Texas, Austin Area Research Organization, Austin Chamber of Commerce, Communities in Schools of Central Texas and Greater Austin Crime Commission. Most recently, she’s also become an advocate for breast cancer care in Central Texas. Learn more at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stacyarmijo/.