It started with severe pain in my back. I was at a birthday party with my five-year-old son, and he wanted me to lift him up to put a coin in an arcade game. I lifted him, knowing I probably shouldn’t while I was nine months pregnant, but he was so excited and it would just take a second. Like a bolt of lightning, the most excruciating pain lanced through my back, taking my breath away. I managed to get my son down without dropping him, but I knew in my gut something wasn’t right. I brought the pain up to my doctor, who dismissed it as a symptom of being pregnant. After all, don’t all pregnant women get back pain? My doctor wasn’t worried, so I supposed I didn’t need to be either, but the pain continued to get worse. I ended up at a prenatal chiropractor, sleeping with pillows wedged around me like a fortress. I found myself wishing I could go into labor just to get the epidural and find a little relief.
My third baby, a beautiful son, was born healthy and happy on June 1, 2021. The birth went so smoothly. They placed him on my chest and I heard his little cries of life, feeling so satisfied, so joyful that all the hardship our family had been through in the last few years had finally culminated in this one beautiful moment of redemption. My husband and I couldn’t wait to bring him home and start the next chapter of our lives together. I had edits on my third book to begin and a new manuscript I was excited to finish. Life felt bright and shiny with new possibilities and new beginnings.
But the day after giving birth, I began to notice that half of my tongue was feeling numb and difficult to control. I asked my nurse, wondering if it was a possible side effect of the epidural. Because it was only half of my tongue, it immediately triggered a series of events. The doctor called in a stroke team to assess me, and after they decided I wasn’t showing signs of a stroke, they sent me for a CT scan just to be safe.
And then my doctor walked into my postpartum recovery room with the last news in the world I expected to hear. I held my newborn baby in my arms as my husband held me, and we cried as she told us about the tumors in my lung, my liver, and my spine. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not right after giving birth. Not to a young mom with three children. Not to me. To anyone.
The severe back pain immediately made sense; I had a large tumor on my lumbar spine and multiple compression fractures in my thoracic spine. I was rushed into an MRI and liver biopsy. Two days after the birth of my son, when I was supposed to be leaving the hospital, I was diagnosed with stage IV high grade neuroendocrine carcinoma. They couldn’t tell where the cancer started, only that it had metastasized to multiple distant locations. My battered body didn’t have any time to recover from childbirth—we immediately made plans for a port placement and intensive chemotherapy.
It’s a highly traumatic experience to be slapped in the face with your mortality at only 34 years old. I still can’t fully articulate the thoughts that ran through my head as I lay in that MRI machine for nearly two hours contemplating everything. As a psychology student, I knew theoreticals, such as the stages of accepting death or that my mind was dissociating as a means to cope. But all I kept thinking about was how I didn’t want to leave my family. I had so much still to do with my life. I had so many books still inside me that needed to find their way out.
Books have always been a life ring to me in the turbulent waters of life. When I suffered from an anxiety disorder as a young teen, Harry Potter became a world I could escape into when my own became too much to handle. Devastated from a nasty breakup? Avon true romance novels were there to remind me that love was still possible (even if it didn’t involve exquisite gowns and billowing open front shirts—don’t worry, I learned to temper my romantic expectations eventually). I struggled with severe postpartum depression after the birth of my first child and writing became a way to find time for myself and give words to the feelings percolating inside my soul that were itching to find a way out. When our second child was born, my husband forced me out the door to my first writing conference. So I packed up my breast pump and laptop and entered the world of publishing for the first time. I never looked back.
I knew cancer was going to steal a lot from me. My time, from hours-long treatments and endless appointments with specialists. My energy, as I fought side effects from the chemo and radiation. Even my reflection in the mirror, as my face puffed up and my long, thick hair fell out in clumps between my fingers. It could even possibly steal my very life... but I wasn’t going to let it steal my joy. I wasn’t going to let it steal my creativity or my chance to touch and connect with others through my words.
So I made up my mind to keep writing. No matter what happened, no matter how I felt, I wanted writing and books to continue to be the place of comfort and coping they’d always been for me. I sat in chemo treatments with my laptop and finished edits on my third book and turned them into my publisher. I finished my newest manuscript while on a plane to MD Anderson in Texas to meet with a cancer specialist. I threw on a purple wig and sat behind my table at a writers’ conference and talked with readers who were excited about my books. I accepted three awards with tears in my eyes for best debut, best young adult, and best fantasy novel at that same conference. It reminded me why I was fighting so hard to hold onto this part of my life—I still had so much in me left to give.
One of my favorite books is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In his book, he describes his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and his observations about how humans respond to suffering, how we struggle to find meaning in the midst of incredible hardship and tragedy. The reality is, we cannot control what happens to us in life. Sometimes things happen that seem incredibly unfair. But no matter what happens to us, no matter what is taken from us or forced upon us, the one thing we always have power over is how we choose to respond. We get to choose how we will handle those crises. We can choose cowardice, we can choose to give up, stop trying, to give into despair. Or, we can choose joy perseverance, and yes, even happiness despite our circumstances. Like the singer Nightbird told Simon Cowell on America’s Got Talent, “We can’t wait until life isn’t hard any more before we decide to be happy.” And here’s the beautiful thing: we can find purpose and pride in our ability to make that choice.
I choose to keep writing, to keep creating in the face of my cancer diagnosis, because it brings me joy. It gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to the world around me. It helps me feel like I am contributing something of worth and value, something that my children will be able to read and see their mother in after I’m not here anymore, whenever that may be. Having a sense of purpose, even in the face of death, is one of Viktor Frankl’s suggestions as well. He noticed that those who tended to survive were the ones who still had reasons to live, something they knew that they and they alone could contribute to the world. Writing has given me a “why” to keep living and fighting, and as Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any 'how.’ ”
Lani Forbes, author of The Age of Seventh Sun series, is a California native and now resides in the Pacific Northwest.