A Journey of Hope by Rebekah Hughes
June 2011, I decided for the second time to not accept an opportunity to go to college. My nephew, brother, and I took a backpacking trip through Yosemite Park to celebrate my nephew graduating high school.
I was in the best shape of my life and challenged myself every day. Yosemite was breath-taking. Throughout our trip, I sensed a change was coming, but I never could have imagined that my life was about to unravel in a most unexpected and unwanted way.
After getting out of the shower back at home, I looked in the mirror and saw a bruise above my right breast. I felt it. There was no pain but there was a lump. No, no, no. Fear flooded my heart and every single fiber of the universe froze. I couldn’t breathe yet my heartbeat wanted to punch through my chest.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror, repeating over and over, “No! It’s not possible.” My grandma had breast cancer in her 60s. Memories flashed back to when I was a little girl spending the night at her house. When putting me to bed, she’d lean over to kiss me and I could see down her nightgown. She only had one breast.
When I discovered my new bruise, I was 23 years old. I had little knowledge of cancer, but I knew mammograms started at around 40 and breast cancer is one of those cancers that happen when you are “older”. I googled “risk of breast cancer under 25” and found out it was possible, but my chances were slim.
Cancer – Round 1
Both my sisters went with me to my first doctor’s appointment. The doctor told me I was young and not to worry because it was most likely a cyst. But to be “safe,” I had a mammogram and an ultrasound. Something looked wrong so next was the biopsy. They diagnosed me with stage 1 triple positive IDC.
Everything that happened after that felt like a rushing blur. Because I was BRCA negative and there was no explanation of why I had breast cancer, I opted to have a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction—it was the hardest decision of my life at that point. I had so dreamt of marriage, children, and breastfeeding. Some of those experiences were being stolen from my life. And at 23, I was just starting to get comfortable with the chest I had.
I went through five months of TCH. After finishing Herceptin, I began a five-year course of Tamoxifen with three month checkups for five years. At the end of IV treatment I felt lost. I didn’t realize then but when my treatments finished, I was a different person. I met with a therapist who explained that I was experiencing PTSD and to heal and move forward I needed to grieve what I went through. I hadn’t gone to war or anything, but cancer steals so much from patients, and treatments can feel like a war is waging physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
A friend asked if she could introduce someone to me, Shaun was her name. She ended up becoming my bosom buddy. She too was a patient. Shaun had metastatic breast cancer, but you never would have guessed it. She had suffered with cancer for 30 years, but that wasn’t her focus in life. Shaun was older and taught me, both by word and by action, so much about life and how to really live. She loved God and lived a joy filled life despite her suffering. For example, she showed me that no matter where you’re at in the struggle, never forget to live with purpose. She taught me to notice the people around me and realize that there will always be someone worse off than me. Don’t walk through cancer alone and never forget to have fun.
Cancer – Round 2
My second diagnosis came in like a bulldozer, way more shocking than the first time. Taking Shaun’s advice, I had moved from Southern Oregon to Southern California looking for a new adventure. I had my first date ever and fell head-over-heels. Joel and I were married within a year of meeting. I remember standing at the altar before my family, my friends, the pastor, Joel, and my God committing myself to Joel through sickness and health, not believing that that commitment could be tested so early in our marriage. I was 26.
Eight months into our marriage (2015), the breast cancer returned as stage 4. It had metastasized to my lungs, kidneys, liver, and bones. They also found nine lesions in my brain. One oncologist predicted 4-6 months to live. Joel and I were devastated, and our once exciting future turned black. We live in Southern California, and I was accepted into the City of Hope treatment center. That was nearly five years ago! City of Hope has beaten back almost all my cancer. But stage 4 cancer is always an up and down battle, and as I write this, chemo is taking its toll.
My Source of Hope
But despite the pain, the sickness, the fatigue, and everything else cancer has pilfered from me (e.g. permanent hair loss, long distant driving, parts of intimacy, etc.) I live a truly rich and hope-filled life. Joel and I are Christians and without my faith, I don’t think I’d be here today. Our Christian faith gives us a whole new way to see everything. For example, I believe that God, who is my Father, loves me and is always with me. No matter how many people you have around you, cancer is still a lonely, terrifying journey. But with my loving Father, I’m never alone and He knows what I’m feeling.
Another reason for my hope is that I firmly believe that everything we go through has a specific reason and purpose—even my cancer. What this means for me is that even my pain and suffering has real meaning and purpose. We may not realize what it all means this side of heaven, but we have a choice how we react to what meets us on our road through life.
And if that’s not enough, I believe that I have eternal life and even if or when I die, I will be forever with God somewhere even better than this beautiful world. My faith gives me the strength to keep fighting, keep loving, and keep rejoicing over these last nine years with cancer.
I fight and continue to fight because my Hope is real, my Hope is stronger than I am, and my Hope tells me that when I can’t go on, He will carry me. My hope is a Person. My hope is God.
In 2017, Joel and I formed Rebekah’s Hope. We help those fighting cancer, illness, and despair, find hope and healing through our writings, videos, and e-courses. Joel has published two books to help people on the cancer journey. One book, In Your Corner, is written for caregivers. I’m working on a book about my life, journey, and faith. Our biggest project is our feature documentary (on our story) called A Brave Hope (coming in 2020).