Life is Awesome! (Even When it Sucks.)

Who would have thought that the invention of the iPhone would initiate a whole new category of personal chore: organizing the photo library. I remember the old days … taking pictures, getting them developed, only to stuff them in a box somewhere to be seen again when my hairstyle and the cut of my pants is embarrassingly out of style. (“Yes,” I tell my daughters, “wearing really big jeans with an undersized t-shirt was considered VERY fashionable at the time.”)

Uploading photos to my library and adding new memories to the old, has always struck me as bittersweet. I have forgotten how chubby the girls cheeks were, how I had to bend down to hold their hands as we walked together down the street. I see my beloved cat “Munchie” (who is now deceased). I remember his warm furry little body, and how he always welcomed me home at the end of a teaching day.

Pictures of me one year apart
Pictures of us one year apart

Lately, what has been most striking has been witnessing how much I have changed… especially this past year. These are two pictures of me taken roughly one year apart. The most notable difference between the pictures is my hair: in one picture it is long and colored, in the other, my hair is short and decidedly “salt and pepper”. This change was not brought about by a desire to “reinvent my look”, streamline my morning beauty routine or “go natural”. It represents a profound change in my family’s core existence.

What happened? Last year, after the first photo was taken I was diagnosed with cancer…

Cancer Changes Everything

In August, during a routine MRI doctors discovered two alarming growths, one in my hip and the other in my armpit. During two excruciating months, while we waited for the results of multiple scans and biopsies, I contemplated the potential diagnoses before me. If you ranked my potential health scenarios from best to worst: I either had a weird systemic infection like Cat Scratch Fever (that one was unlikely), lymphoma, or stage 3 ovarian cancer (yikes!).

For one whole month, my husband and I contemplated the idea that he might have to raise our girls without me. What made this process even more excruciating was finding ways to manage my own overwhelming emotions, while staying involved and present as a mom.

“Lucky” for me, I was diagnosed with the “cancer you want”: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma… Yipeee!!! *sarcasm*

From October through March this past year I got to learn everything I never wanted to know about chemo. My hair fell out, my nails turned blue, my white blood count hovered into the “danger zone”. Not only did nausea make me feel like I was going through morning sickness all over again, I could no longer participate in regular daily activities. I had to be extremely careful when venturing out in public places for fear I might catch a flu that could land me in the emergency room. I couldn’t volunteer at my daughters’ school, let alone pick them up from their after school program (too many potentially “germy” kids!). I couldn’t eat sushi, blue cheese or oysters (yes I know, first world problems…) Work was out of the question. Many days, I couldn’t even make it to the dinner table.

What Does Cancer Have to Do with My Blog?

This is the first time I’ve talked about my illness here. This is not a blog about being a parent with cancer (there are already enough of those, and good ones: NewMomNewCancer, Mothers With Cancer, Cancer is Not a Gift. I have focused my writing on what it means for me to be a parent, an educator and a person deeply committed to positive social change.

I’ve written about how my values have informed my passion for public education. My family history (being the daughter of two first-generation college graduates, one of whom became the first African-American Professor at UCLA) has deeply influenced my belief in high-quality public education for all students.

Now, five months out from chemo I have been given a “get out of jail free” card on life. My body shows no signs of lymphoma and my doctor says I have a very good chance of staying that way. (When a doctor gives you optimistic news, you breathe a BIG sign of relief, because they don’t do that without consideration!)

So, why am I talking about all this now?

What do these experiences have to do with my reasons for being an educator, community organizer and blogger?

If my experiences have taught me anything, it is that LIFE IS A GIFT. Even when it sucks!

This is what motivates me to lead a life with purpose, to write about being an involved mom, supporting our schools, having fun adventures with my family this summer! Every second we have is a gift, and while I’m here I intend to make the most of it.

This Sunday marks my girls’ 9th birthday, and I feel so lucky to share it with them. I will remind myself when I am spinning around on some god-awful roller coaster at Great America this weekend.

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks/months, as I sort through a new definition of post-cancer “me”. (When I am brave enough, I’ll even update my profile picture.) Until then, I’d like to thank you. I hope that my tips, musings, and reflections have been helpful. Either way, writing kept me sane and connected as I wrestled with nausea, “cancer cabin fever” and the meaning of life. Whether you know it or not, you and the folks I’ve met through social media (via Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook) have all been a major part of my support network… giving me a sense of purpose, connectedness, and most of all community. I am truly blessed!

With deep gratitude,

Ali Collins

4 thoughts on “Life is Awesome! (Even When it Sucks.)

  1. Dear Ali,

    You are a beautiful and courageous woman (mom, educator, and wife)!!! I saw the video you made with the girls… Miss you! Stay strong and positive!

    Thank you for sharing. See you soon!


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