(CNN) — It was a grim realization for Heather McManamy when she discovered during an echocardiogram that the breast cancer she fought so hard against had metastasized.
Her stage two cancer, which was diagnosed in April 2014, had spread. There was cancer in her liver, bones, even her skull.
“It was pretty much everywhere,” the 35-year-old McFarland, Wisconsin, resident said.
The young mother already knew there was roughly a 50-50 chance she would have a cancer recurrence before age 50, but she didn’t expect it to happen at the tail end of her initial treatment.
She and her husband, Jeff McManamy, were in shock when they learned the news, and spent hours walking through a grocery store, just to process the information before they went to pick up their 4-year-old daughter, Brianna.
“When it was time to pick up Bri, we had a normal, fun night and made the decision that we’d take it one moment at a time.”
She and her husband started planning around her departure immediately.
Since McManamy’s doctors couldn’t give her a guarantee of how much time she had left, she created a memory box for her daughter. She stuffed it with trinkets and cards, dozens of them. She raided a Hallmark store and got a card for every big moment she could think of that Brianna would go through.
Her hope was to create a lifetime’s worth of greeting cards for Brianna.
The project was daunting to start. But she wanted to write down as much as she could, and after she was gone, her husband would share the cards with Brianna as she reached different life milestones.
“I have cards for every possible thing,” she said. “I have a card for her first beer, her first love, her first heartbreak. I have advice for when she gets married and when she has a baby.”
In the span of a few months, McManamy has written 50 cards. In the process, she has managed to keep Brianna from finding out about the cards so they will be a surprise.
Writing to her daughter transformed into a kind of therapy for McManamy. Her new goal is to see Brianna go to kindergarten next fall and hand her a card.
“I just wrote as if I was still here. It was really comforting. I felt like I had some sort of control, like I could be here with her when I’m gone.”
The couple also started a GoFundMe page to raise money for a grand trip to Disney World, which they took in September, and for funeral expenses and Brianna’s college fund. The campaign has raised about $40,000 and McManamy has been overwhelmed by the support she has received from strangers.
There is no way for doctors to predict how well she will respond to treatment. The median life expectancy for McManamy’s situation is around 18 months.
She has burned through her treatment options quickly and recently found out that her liver was functioning at only 40%.
But McManamy has realistic hopes for her future and wants to cherish each day with her family.
She was inspired to share her story about the project for her daughter because she hopes others will try to live in the moment, too.
“Most people my age are naive to the unfairness of the world and how fragile life is,” she said. “I am here today, but nobody is guaranteed anything beyond that.”