When Urbana-Champaign, IL, mom Jen Smith, 35, took her son, Corbin, to his first day of kindergarten last Aug. 24, she jumped for joy. Not because she was happy to have her kid out from under foot, but because she never thought she'd live to see the day—literally.
When Corbin was 9 months old, what she thought was a clogged milk duct turned out to be breast cancer. One year, one lumpectomy, six months of chemo and six weeks of daily radiation later, the cancer hadn't backed down. Instead, it was back. In her ribs. In her scapula. In her spine. It was now Stage IV. Incurable. And Jen was just 31.
But the tears, the fear, the anger, the frustration soon gave way to a new mode of life. Jen calls it "living legendary."
And nothing—not any of her five surgeries, 15 different anticancer treatments or the radiation to three parts of her body—has dimmed her spirit.
Here, Jen shares the insight that helps her get the most meaning, fullness and fun from life.
Call the shots. "I'm making choices of how I'm going to spend my time," says Jen, who left her decade-long position as an academic adviser at a community college in December 2010. "I'm doing now what people do when they normally retire." What does that include? Well, how about trips to Orlando, New York City, Dallas and Hawaii—and that's just in 2011 alone!
Do something crazy. "I didn't know who Taylor Swift was, but I found a way to go to her concert. And, through the craziest of connections…I got a backstage pass for a meet and greet!" says Jen.
Find the funny in cancer. At a speaking engagement at a high school, Jen joked about her breast prostheses. "These are fake," she said. "My real ones tried to kill me!"
Say no to drama. "Unless a person adds to my quality of life, I cut them out," says Jen, who's uncompromising on this point. She says she simply doesn't make herself available to drama queens (or kings) who drain her energy and enthusiasm.
Make an average day feel special. Jen is lucky to be surrounded by nearby family—her parents, her sister, her brother, her sister-in-law and nephew—and they don't wait for holidays to enjoy one another's company: "Usually once a week, we all get together and order pizza. Or we do a family cookout."
Celebrate often—and creatively. When Jen turned 35 last March, she extended the party. "I celebrated my birth month!" Her party theme: "I'm 35 and still alive!" The icing on the cake? "I had dessert every single day of the month!"
Put a time limit on sadness. Whether it's the loss of a friend—"It's hard when you watch someone die because of the same disease you have"—or a bad scan, Jennifer gives herself permission to grieve: "I can be mad, I can cry. But I put a time limit on it—one night. In the morning, I say, 'Okay, what are the next steps, and what do I need to do?' I have a finite amount of energy, so I don't want to spend it on a bad scan."
Believe. "When I was diagnosed with Stage IV, Corbin was not even 2," recalls Jen, who goes on to say that she set two goals: 1) to take Corbin to Disney World and 2) to see him go to kindergarten.
It was on that Disney trip that Jen spotted a magnet reading: "Miracles happen if you just believe." "The word believe rang true with me," she says, and she linked it to goal number two. Earlier this summer, to acknowledge reaching that amazing milestone, Jen had it tattooed on her wrist in a one-of-a-kind "font"—Corbin's handwriting.
On Aug. 24, when Corbin let go of her hand, the hand he reaches for every morning at the breakfast table, to run excitedly toward his new classmates, Jen felt a little bit wistful and a whole lot wonderful. In her case, after all, believing is seeing.