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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Mom's Story - Witnessing What Breast Cancer Can Do

I honestly do not know what to write. When Erica gave me the opportunity to be a contributor to the blog this week I jumped at the chance to share my side of my mom’s breast cancer survival story. But now, it being 6 a.m. and staring at a blank word document that has been written and rewritten five different times, I’m not sure what to say (& for those of you that know me, this doesn’t happen to me at all, making the feeling even more perplexing).

To be quite honest I don’t know how to put my mom’s story and the series of events I witnessed, felt and went through because of cancer into words on paper.  Although we all come from different walks of life I’m sure many of us can agree on one thing (and to be blunt about it): cancer sucks. It’s a hard, scary, exhausting process for any one and their family to go through. So here is my story and what I witnessed through my mom’s fight with breast cancer…

In late November 2004 my mom, dad and I went out to dinner to celebrate my grandma’s birthday. Everything was normal as usual until my dad made some reference to the future and then my mom cut him off mid-sentence to change the subject. Knowing my parents, it seemed like something was up to me and I was right. Later that night my mom told me that they had found a cancerous mass from her mammogram images and her and dad would be meeting with an oncologist to come up with a game plan.

When my mom told me she had cancer, and even later that night, I didn’t cry. Seems weird right? As a 17-year-old hearing your mom has cancer you would think one would break down and sob hysterically but I didn’t. Although I was scared and had thoughts in my head of “Will my mom see me finish high school? Will my mom see me graduate college? What about when I get married or have a family? Who is going to be there to tell me how to do it – how to get through life?” I still didn’t cry –I didn’t know what to feel because I had no idea or thought on what to expect and what would happen in the next couple of months let alone day when we would find out more news.

After being diagnosed my mom underwent three different surgeries including double mastectomy to get rid of the entire left and right breast and the cancer as well.

I cried hysterically at each surgery. Even after the very first surgery I remember my entire family - dad, sister, brother and me - huddling in the hallway outside the pre-op room. All of us crying, huddling like a team in the middle of the hallway. Of course we were a team, we all had one goal (for mom to get better) and felt the same main emotion that we didn’t know what would happen tomorrow or in a few hours because of breast cancer, but we wanted mom to survive it.

The hardest part of my mom’s breast cancer fight was hands-down the chemotherapy. Again, being 17, I felt like I was living two very separate lives. By day I was going to school, hanging out with friends and talking about whatever issue that was catastrophically ruining our lives at the moment (most likely it was the sheer fact that it was Monday and we didn’t have plans for the weekend yet). By night, I was coming home to see my mom on the couch, tired, dazed and lifeless from the various rounds of chemotherapy.  It was hard to see that day in and day out, but even harder to see it from the one person who, when you’re 17, you count on to take care of you.

I even remember one time before a basketball game, (I cheered for 4 years in high school) another cheerleader and I were at my house getting ready and she mentioned to me, “I like your mom’s wig. It’s cute.” To this day that comment makes me shutter. Although there were only the best intentions intended from this compliment, these are the things that you hear and think, “I shouldn’t be hearing this. My mom shouldn’t have breast cancer.” Because of breast cancer I was already coming home and witnessing the effects of chemotherapy, having meals brought to us by various people in our church and strangers who I wasn’t even sure how they knew my family and in general hoping, praying and wishing that the whole cancer situation would be done, gone and out of my family’s lives. Hearing this comment was just another reminder of the one thing I didn’t want to be reminded of: my mom has cancer.

Fortunately, after 3 surgeries, 4 rounds of chemo and 4 rounds of radiation, my mom will be 9 years cancer-free this spring. Looking back, I’ve noticed there is a strange thing about cancer: although it has the potential to tear one person up, it has a greater potential to bring that person and the people around them closer together.

As you read and can see, there were a lot of moments throughout my mom’s fight with breast cancer that, as a witness to the process, just plain sucked (are you seeing the common theme here?). Yet, there were a handful of moments that because of going through them, I know my family as a whole, and each person themself, have an unbreakable bond that some families just cannot replicate. You know someone will always be there for you (even in a different city or state) when you have a phone call with barely any words spoken but instead tears and sniffles (my sister and I), you know you have someone who believes in you when they tell you it’s okay your report card has C’s instead of your usual A & B grades (note to the reader: to say I’m a perfectionist is an understatement - anyone who knows me knows that I’m OCD and not only dot my I’s and cross my T’s but will go back and check those I’s & T’s 235 times so C’s were a big hit for me) and you know you have experienced true, selfless love when your mom, in between the various rounds of chemo, apologizes for missing a majority of your cheerleading gigs and you can see the pain in her eyes that she can’t be there to see you, even though that is the one and only thing she wants in the entire world right now.

So, over a thousand words, two cups of coffee and an hour later - that is it. That is my mom’s story and now my story as well.  To confess, this is the first true time I’ve shared my view and recollection of co-surviving breast cancer with anyone and yes, I will answer the question you are all wondering: why don’t I share this story more often or tell people my side of the story? And to be honest, nobody asks.

Cancer is one of those things that for most people unless you’ve had it or witnessed it first hand, it’s just two-dimensional. Yes you may ask what stage it is in, how that person is doing and even offer to help but there’s so much more to it than a simple answer & small talk. It’s a three dimensional process and it doesn’t just apply to the one fighting it, it extends to the family and community around that person as well.

There is a quote that applies to Christianity that says, “I believe in God just as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis).

Being the daughter of a breast cancer survivor has changed things for me. Like the C.S. Lewis quote, some things are a little more ‘real’ in my point of view because of what my mom went through. My health, how my time’s spent, even Breast Cancer Awareness Month holds a different meaning for me than most people sporting hot pink and ‘liking’ a breast cancer article: it’s real.

My hope is that me sharing my story with you has made the effects of cancer a little more real for you too. I hope that my experiences have given you a glimpse of the true dimension of cancer and what it can do but also bring light to the beauty of not just a person but an entire army of people beating cancer like my mom did.

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