I was 25 and working as a nurse in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I noticed something odd: I was feeling short of breath just walking up the stairs to my bedroom. Probably a case of bronchitis, I figured. Other than the shortness of breath, I felt totally fine. My coworkers prodded me to go to urgent care to get an inhaler or some antibiotics. I remember sitting in the waiting room and looking at everyone else, thinking, Oh, my goodness. All these people are so sick. I worried they were going to get me sick. During the exam the medical team found that my oxygen level was low and my heart rate was high—they started worrying. At first we thought it might be a blood clot in my lung, so before sending me to the E.R., they did a chest X-ray. And that’s when they saw it: My entire right lung was almost completely collapsed.
My sister picked me up and took me to the E.R., where doctors ordered a CT scan—and then things got worse. On the scan they noticed abnormal-looking lymph nodes and said they would need to do a biopsy. Once we found out about the biopsy plan, my mom flew in from Virginia. Through the biopsy and draining of the fluid in my collapsed lung, they found malignant cancer cells. I was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, which is terminal. I was 25 years old and given six months to live.
Fighting for a Future
That moment changed the course of my life. As a nurse I had cared for people with lung cancer, mostly older men, and they’d died. I didn't even know that I could get lung cancer—I wasn’t a smoker and had no other risk factors. I’ve since learned that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer of women—every five minutes a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed. And for most of us, it’s not caught early, when the disease is most treatable.
I remember sitting in the doctor's office and thinking about everything that I had done in my life up to that moment: As a child, I'd struggled with hearing difficulties and had undergone a lot of surgeries. Later, I’d wanted to be a nurse and made it through nursing school. Then I thought about everything I had planned for my future: I wanted to find a husband, get married, have kids, and live until I was old. In that one moment, I lost everything.
As my mom talked to the pulmonologist, I couldn’t hear anything, the word terminal ringing in my ears. I just remember asking God, “What now? What do I do now?” And I felt like the answer was clear: Fight it.
The hope is to one day treat this type of lung cancer, or all cancers, like we treat diabetes—as a chronic condition that can be managed.
I started chemotherapy and fell into a deep depression. One day, in between chemo sessions, I remember sitting in my bed and thinking: It would be so much easier if I just ended it now and saved everybody the trouble. My family and my faith kept me going—I just had to keep believing that ending my life wasn’t the plan for me. I clung to that idea, taking the will to keep fighting day by day and hour by hour.
Before treatment, PET scans (which show cancer cells) of my lymph nodes were lit up like a Christmas tree. But after four cycles of chemo, I started drug therapy and something amazing happened: All the lights disappeared. For the first time, I started to think about the future again.
Drug therapy isn't a cure; it’s a treatment. I had to come to terms with that. Eventually, the drugs will become less effective as my body adapts and the cancer finds ways around it. My Christmas tree will start to light up again. But I’m still hopeful. My new oncologist explained to me that the hope is to one day treat this type of lung cancer, or all cancers, like we treat diabetes—as a chronic condition that can be managed.
Living With Terminal Cancer
I’ve survived with this disease for six years now, but it’s still hard to think about the future. It’s hard to forget the feeling of having all the years you’d planned for your life disappear in an instant. But once I accepted that drug treatments were working, I started thinking about what I was going to do with whatever time I have left. Was I going to lie in bed or was I going to get up and do something? So I helped start a lung cancer support group in Oklahoma City through Lung Force and met other survivors. I started volunteering at church and really getting out of my comfort zone.
In 2015, two years after I was diagnosed, I married my best friend and became a stepmom to his son. When I was sitting there that day during chemo thinking about killing myself, I had these voices in my mind telling me, "Nobody's going to marry someone like you." But that was a lie. I still had good things in my future; I just couldn't see them at the time. All of a sudden I had a family—proof the things I had always dreamed for my life could still happen.
I want my kids to know that yes, I had cancer. But also that I lived my life.
Because of my treatment, I can’t get pregnant. But my husband and I realized that there are already kids in the world who need a mother to love them. We’d seen a list on Facebook going around written by a child in Oklahoma. It was all of things that they wanted in a family: clean clothes, their own bed, a home where there’s no hitting. My husband said, "We don't have a lot, but we have that. We have that in spades."
I haven’t worked since my diagnosis. Literally, the last day of my career was that day I started feeling short of breath and went to urgent care. For a long time, I thought that it had all been a waste—I’d gone to school for four years to become a nurse and got to be one for only two years—but I use that knowledge more than ever as a foster mom to babies and children born with drug addiction. We actually have a lot in common: For me and for these kids, the future is unknown. But for right now, for as long as I can, I’m going to love them. They’re the reason I keep fighting.
The first baby we brought home was three months old and weighed only nine pounds. I worked really hard to bridge with his biological mom who was eventually able to get clean and take him home. It was an amazing moment. Our next baby, a little girl, we brought home from the NICU. We tried really hard to bridge with her biological parents, but unfortunately, they were unable to take her home. So on October 1 of this year, we adopted our daughter JoyAnna Danielle. She carries my name because she is a part of me—even if something were to ever happen to me, and even though she's not mine biologically, she always has me with her.
No matter what happens, I want my kids to know that yes, I had cancer. But also that I lived my life. Getting diagnosed with lung cancer at 25, I did lose the life I’d planned for myself—but I found my calling.
Originally Appeared on Glamour