Greater Than Series: Claren Englebreth
A note from Jen: Over the next few weeks you’ll be meeting some of my favorite friends and their inspiring stories. The idea behind the phrase “Greater > Than” is that we are all greater than the challenges life presents us, and we can get through them!
Today, meet a fellow Young Mom Against Cancer. Claren and I met in chemo, and, as it would turn out, our families go back decades and we’re second cousins by marriage. It’s crazy and we still can’t believe it.
I’ll let Claren tell her story…
When I was a little girl, my Godfather would take all five of us to the K&W Cafeteria in Wilson.
It was such a special treat.
I would always order a big ‘ole pile of ketchup with a side of the 5 oz grilled sirloin and golden French fries. We referred to our Godfather as Uncle David. He would ask us each individually, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer never changed. I had a goal and a plan. I answered, “President of THE Bank.“ For those of you not from Eastern North Carolina, BB&T began in my hometown, Wilson, NC, in 1872, so it was often referred to as just “The Bank. “
Childhood was pretty perfect and uneventful from my perspective. Four healthy siblings, happily married parents, church every Sunday, sports, dance, paper route, friends, and high school. My plan for adulthood was simple: church, college, job, marriage, kids, house, enough money to be comfortable, travel, help others, be a leader, and save for retirement. Still, I aimed for president of The Bank. I tried to do my best always- maybe I was a bit of a perfectionist. Great grades, community service, mission trips, helping others, National Honor Society...on and on. I wanted to work hard so my adult life would allow me to reach my goals- and afford me to relax and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
At 22, I graduated from college Magna Cum Laude — and I was off to guess where? — Winston Salem to work at BB&T.
I was on my way.
THEN COMES MARRIAGE
I was eventually reassigned to my hometown to work as a commercial analyst. I met a guy, got married and had two beautiful boys.
My plan was working.
It was like my Mom's famous banana bread recipe — the ingredients had all been added, the bread was baking in the oven, and it had just started that warm smell all over the house.
Life was grand.
Until one day it wasn’t.
My marriage wasn't working the way I had hoped; it was hard, stressful, and the time had come to make a change. I was breaking my vow to God; I was heartbroken, but deep down knew God didn't want me in this place either.
I knew I had to get out to save myself.
I was embarrassed.
I was a failure.
This would ruin my “plan” for the perfect adult life. I would truly be “damaged” goods. I might live alone for the rest of my life. I was so scared, but I knew it was the right thing to do. This was NOT in my plan.
I used this saying all of the time after my divorce:
“Adulthood is like looking both ways before crossing the street, and then getting hit by an airplane."
This quote always made me laugh at myself, my stupid perfect plan. It rang so true. Still does.
I learned so much about myself and life during this process. I lost a lot of what I had acquired materially in my 32 short years. I re-evaluated my plan and took time to re-group.
A NEW LIFE IN RALEIGH
After I moved to Raleigh, I accidentally met this amazing, one-of-a-kind guy, who truly complimented me and my efficient, driven, goal-oriented self. Looking at him I thought, man, I should’ve done life the way he did: not a care in the world about anything, yet so much care for everyone around him. Bonus- he was just super fun. I referred to him as “Camp Wes” and “my staycation” for the first two years of our relationship. Every moment with him was fun, adventurous, filled with laughter and real. He taught me how to “stop and smell the roses.” I admired his passion for life and quickly knew he was my soul mate.
We married —my two handsome sons, ages 8 and 6, walked me down the aisle on the most perfect winter day. (Not in my plan either, having my own children at my wedding. But one of my favorite moments of the day. Insert proud Mama.) James stills talks and describes what he saw in Wes's eyes as the doors opened for us to begin our life as a new family. I laughed and cried at everything that day. I thought my heart would explode I loved him so much.
We instantly became a family of four, with so many new adventures. Camping, hiking, boating, swimming, riding bikes, playing outside, growing vegetable gardens in the summer, wood fires in the winter. Life was so perfect, and I was back on track to my perfect, relaxing adult life, plus a soulmate. Check.
We had a baby boy.
He melded us into more of a family, and I relished at how my older boys loved, protected, cared, and adored their baby brother. I highly recommend a third child that is much younger than your older two. I relaxed as a parent, had help this time, and I enjoyed watching him grow so much.
And then one day at my office I literally thought I was having a stroke or heart attack. I was so scared that I drove myself across the street to my doctor. I was working too hard, and needed to rest, that was it, until a few weeks later when I learned I was pregnant — the unexpected again — another baby boy was on the way...what??
How could I work full time AND raise four boys?
Time to make a new plan
We found our dream home — a new house for extra space. Perfect location, perfect size, no remodeling needed — and a REAL treehouse, like one you could spend the night in. Way up in a tree, with a porch all the way around it.
After seven years of turmoil, my divorce was behind me, the boys and I had added two new people to our tribe, (getting close to adding another) and work was better than ever. Success was really happening for me.
Then came the second airplane.
I’m reasonable enough to know I’m not invincible, but I guess I thought God was dealing with our imperfect world and would surely make sure I didn’t get dealt another bad/difficult card. He was watching over me. So I was covered, right? I was trying — exercising, eating the right foods, helping others, so I was protected right?
At 34 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer.
What? How could this be? What are the chances?
No family history, no signs of feeling bad, what?
It was so surreal.
I couldn’t believe it because I felt so great the entire pregnancy. I felt betrayed by my body. I kept thinking, we are one. You know, mind and body — and my body was cheating on me with cancer and didn’t bother to let my mind know. My mind was really frustrated with my body. I cried a lot, but as my dad always says,
“Once you get done crying, your mind will be clear. Then you can make a plan of how to get through it.”
So that’s what I did.
My diagnosis was June 6, 2018.
We closed on our dream home June 15 and surgeons placed my chemo port in June 22.
We went to the beach for a week-long family reunion June 24 — and returned July 1 to the village who would help me and my family navigate this new challenge.
I’m not one to brag, but I picked an awesome village. They moved my entire house for me. (I’m still having to ask where things are.) I was induced July 2, three weeks early. Best delivery I had ever had. Healthy baby boy. We named him Samuel, “Name of God” — and coincidentally, our priest's and good friend's name, too. If hadn’t gotten pregnant, I would’ve never randomly asked my doctor to check me at an appointment — just because a friend of a friend had just been diagnosed. Samuel, Allison and especially God, they saved my life.
I started chemo two days later — an eight hour day — but I met one of my newest best friends that day (in the South we have multiple best friends, just so we can express how much we love someone who isn’t blood-related).
I continued on with six rounds of what I referred to as “hard” chemo. We had fun in that room. People wanted to sit near us. The nurses made a “reservation” so we could be together each time. We laughed, listened to a volunteer named Retha tell jokes, smiled at the volunteer guitar player, and chatted about dreams, careers and raising children.
I lost my hair. I loved wigs; I could get ready faster than anyone in my house! I had a double mastectomy. I continued with “easy” chemo for 12 more rounds. (but still chemo) and then 28 rounds of radiation. And, I completed my treatment right before my 40th birthday party. (Best party EVER)
I’m still on daily medication and have a shot once a month, though today, I have no evidence of disease.
I pray and thank the women before me every day for giving me the day. They went out on a limb and did trials so the drugs I desperately needed would work. They have given me so many special moments this past year. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I feel an obligation to do the same for those behind me going into the fire of cancer; it heals my soul and gives me purpose.
And so the path has taken a turn again, and I’ve learned so much AGAIN.
“Dear whatever is trying to kill me, I’m strong enough now.”
Here’s what I can tell you about cancer — way more people show up for cancer than they do divorce. And I had a couple of bus loads of folks getting me through my divorce.
Life is short. There’s no do over.
There is always someone who has it worse than you do. Train your mind to find the positive in every situation. This I learned from all the bad news I got, but I use it every day now. My daily chores are easier because I’m so glad that I’m able to do them and don't have to rely on someone else. I don’t get as stressed as I used to. I have goals, but they are just to love on and spend time with my five boys (including Wes), and help them see the world, navigate it, and LOVE. I could do all of this in a box with Wes. He’s simply the best.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
I’m more prepared for the next airplane to come. I now know there could be another one, but that’s out of my control. The only thing I control is my attitude and how I react.
I asked my oldest, Matthew, how he remembered the last year; he replied, "you made it look so easy. You were just tired a lot."
Our three year-old went to preschool and in circle time shared this after his friend sitting beside him made mention of their new hair cut; "well, my mom cut all her hair off...and her boobies", and then looked to the next friend to share as if what he said was normal everyday conversation. He keeps us all in stitches everyday.
Kids are resilient; they will be ok, and maybe even better than before. See, we learn during the valleys of life. So very much. Control your attitude and they will follow. I hope you can use this much earlier than I did.
I don’t work at BB&T anymore, but I have my dream job helping others. I’m not glad I had cancer, but I am glad that I have another perspective on life and this human world we live in.
We are all mortal beings, no one gets out of that one. Love and sharing it are only what really matters here, and what will make you feel best. Serving God will heal you- literally. Show up for the people that don’t have cancer; they need you, too, and are probably feeling alone. This is truly a short stopping place for us; this world is not our permanent home. I hope heaven is a lot like my village, all the people who surrounded me this past year with calls, meals, funny cards, walks, normal conversations, entertainment for my kids, fresh juices, diapers, baby clothes, working hands, smiles and hugs.