October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but, cancer, any cancer, is more than a month, or a ribbon, or a walk. Cancer is a terrible disease that effects millions every single day. For every one patient there is an entire network of family and friends whose lives change immediately and forever. I am the child of breast cancer survivor. Today, I am taking a break from recipes and weight loss to tell you my story. Thank you for understanding.
When you have children, more than anything in the world, you want to protect them. Parents frequently joke about covering our precious offspring with bubblewrap to shield them from sharp corners. We turn Lysol into monster spray to exterminate any creatures lurking under the bed, or inside the closet, then, we turn on a nightlight on just in case the spray doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, not all wounds come from bumping into furniture and there are fears no amount of monster spray can banish. Sadly, it doesn’t matter how many precautions we take, or reassurances we make, at times real life is a scary, lonely, place filled with uncertainty.
I was 6 when my mother’s breast cancer was diagnosed. Mom was 34. In a few months my oldest will turn 6. Six months later I will turn 34. Intellectually, I know these numbers mean absolutely nothing. However, lining them all up makes my heart beat faster, and fears I faced decades ago are becoming present in my life once again.
Statistically speaking, women in their 30’s have less than a 1% likelihood of developing breast cancer (Breast Cancer Risk by Age). Even with the growing numbers of women fighting breast cancer it continues to affect women 55 and over at a much higher rate. But, a person isn’t a statistic and cancer does not read infographics.
The lump was detected during a routine exam. When the diagnosis came Mom was in her early thirties. On paper her risk factors for any type of cancer were low. She led an active life, had no family history, she breastfed two children, and ate a relatively healthy diet. Unfortunately, again, cancer doesn’t read.
My parents did their best to shield my sister and I from the full reality of my mother’s illness. We were told things on a need-to-know basis. Most of the details were discussed in agitated low voices behind closed doors. (It’s true what experts say, your kids will know when something is wrong.) All the attempts at “normal” did nothing to mask the tension and anxiety simmering in our home at that time.
I didn’t have a clear concept of what was happening. Mom looked completely fine but everyone said she was sick. My six-year-old brain understood sick to mean Kleenex, coughing, and a froggy voice. As far as I could see, she didn’t fit any definition of sick I had come to recognize.
Mom’s lumpectomy and partial mastectomy happened on a day that should have been the same as any other school day. After school my little sister and I went home with the neighbor kids. On any other day playing with the kids down the street was a normal activity. On surgery day everything felt abnormal and uncomfortable. The usual after-school cartoons and Nintendo games did nothing to loosen the knots in my stomach. I liked the neighbors, but the only place I wanted to be was curled up in my own home half a block and a million miles away.
Dad finally picked us up at dinner time. The surgery was over and Mom was resting. It went “fine,” things were “fine.” I hate that word. “Fine,” has got to be the most detached and meaningless word in the English language. Things weren’t fine but, for the moment, they weren’t acutely devastating.
Arriving home that evening is one of the few vivid memories I have from my childhood. I walked straight down the narrow hallway to my shared bedroom, closed the door, and shrugged my school bag onto the floor. Standing there, alone for the first time all day, the full weight of my emotions began to wash over me. My tiny muscles, taught from too much worry, ached and the knot in my stomach squeezed into my throat. I stared through the window into the backyard tracing the tangled limbs of our cherry tree until it became a blur. I tried to imagine what my mom was doing at that moment. I wondered when I would see her and what would happen next. I was helpless.
I took a shallow breath and, with a wavering voice, sang, “wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you.” The final word was nothing more than a shuddering breath. At the time, that cheesy Richard Marx song was constantly on the radio. All day his crooning had been the soundtrack to the mess of thoughts in my head but, in that moment of fear, his words became the most sincere prayer I have ever prayed.
Eventually, my sister and I were able to visit the hospital. Mom came home a few days later. Though, somehow, she kept her hair, chemotherapy drugs made sure she looked sick, even by second grade standards. Recovery was slow and painful. A mom who stays in bed all day is no fun but once she was at home, life increasingly felt closer to normal.
Now, a mother myself, I have a new perspective on what we all went through when Mom was sick. I can’t shield my children from all the scary things in life any more than my own mother could. I’m sure Mom thought about my sister and me while she was sick. After ensuring our daily needs where met, she must have prayed we would never have to fight our own battle against cancer. Of course, I pray my own children will remain healthy. However, it is my even greater desire for them to never feel as small and helpless as I did, on that perfectly average but, completely terrible day – a day I would have traded anything to replace reality with something spooky hiding under my bed.