Two Words

–EXCERPT FROM CHAOS TO CLARITY: Sacred Stories of Transformational Change

Featuring Mel Greenberg

Surviving my worst nightmare liberated me.

It was a hot day in July. It was much like any other summer day in Tucson—until it wasn’t.

“Spiculated margins,” my doctor said, and those two little words forever made this day different from every other. These were words I hadn’t heard before, but they would soon become as much a part of my vocabulary as hello and goodbye.

On this hot summer day, I had a routine mammogram—something I’d done religiously since my late twenties. The film revealed a tiny mass. I looked down at the screen, staring till I lost focus, and then glanced up at my doctor’s face. Her concern, and the empathy in her expression, revealed a truth her words did not. Those spiculated margins were a potential problem we’d have to investigate further.

A biopsy would determine what, if any, action was needed.

My doctor looked worried, even though she didn’t say, she couldn’t say.

She knew …

I knew …

She said I should try not to worry. But I did worry! I had worried for as long as I could remember, since long before those two little words took on a life of their own. Before the biopsy, the diagnosis, the medical team, the plan, and the treatment, there had been a seventeen-year-old girl.

I had been that girl, filled with fear, a broken heart, and so many memories. I’d been not quite an adult, not quite ready to be tossed out into the world alone.

But that’s precisely what happened. Life happened. And with a few words—softly spoken in a sterile office on a hot summer day, thirty-two years later—I was there again. My thoughts wandered off as I mulled over what my future might look like—and remembered my past.

Mom’s story ended on July 14, 1977, after a brief, hard-fought battle with the formidable opponent

She’d kept most of the details from me: the diagnosis, the extent of the disease living within her, and the dire prognosis. She would be fine, she’d say. She would beat it. Don’t worry. I didn’t, or at least, not overtly—though I was aware that things were not as they used to be. But they were our days, and Mom was there as much as she could be.

She was there with love, supporting me, watching over me, being a mom. I’d been unaware of just how much life knowledge and strength she tried to infuse into our daily lives, preparing me to carry on without her. I didn’t know just how soon that day would arrive.

I can only speculate about what she endured and why she made the decisions she did. It took becoming a mother myself to understand her motivation to suffer alone, to keep me out of her day-to-day, physical and emotional struggles. It was less about bravery, I think, than about protecting a child from life’s unexpected hardships. As a single mother, she did her level best to ensure that my teenage years would be complete with all the milestones and exciting times that define a young girl’s passage into adulthood.

They were …

They are …

Somewhere between Mom saying, “Honey, I have breast cancer,” and my doctor saying, “Try not to worry,” I grew up.

I went to college, got a job and a husband, and became a mom. Life sometimes had its way with me, but I survived. I navigated through each stage of my adult life without her. To be honest, I felt a bit of resentment along the way. I was never one to spend a lot of time at the pity party, except when those milestones she had coveted popped up: graduation, marriage, and the births of my two sons. In the happy times, the memory-making times, I missed her.

I questioned it all, and somewhere along the way, my questions turned into fear—fear that my story would end as hers had, that cancer would find its way to me, and that I would die, just as she had. I convinced myself her sad journey might also be my destiny.

Early in my twenties, anxiety began to replace my ache for her loss. I found a sad sort of comfort in imagining that anytime I got sick, found a mole, or had a cough or a headache, the diagnosis would come. Then I could just accept my fate and get on with it.

What “it” was in those early days, I have no idea! Was it life or death I feared more? Likely a bit of both. I just wanted the worrying to stop.

It didn’t …

And then it did …

I was only slightly younger than my mom had been when she’d lost her battle. Now I stood, pondering my future.

* * * * * * * * * *

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from just one of many Sacred Stories of our time. Powerful voices from around the globe that speak to our shared human experience. May they inspire you and give you great hope. Order your personal copy of CHAOS TO CLARITY: SACRED STORIES OF TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE today and discover hope for the future and a blueprint for your life ⤵︎


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  1. Two words can be so powerful when they are describing your state of being. The trick is to not let them define you if they are the two words you prefer not to hear. We have the power to change our words.