At six years old, the only thing I knew about the word cancer was that it was making my Mom very ill. I guess you could say it was one of the first “ugly” words I learned – along with tumor, malignant, radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Even though my parents tried to protect me from the fear and pain they were experiencing with my Mom’s diagnosis of breast cancer, I knew something was wrong.
I don’t remember a whole lot about Mom’s first fight with cancer, except that we ate out a LOT! One of the memories that stands out clearly though was that after Mom’s chemo treatments, she would be very weak and very sick. On more than one occasion, I saw Dad holding her up so she could throw up in the trash can. I was so young then and I’m sure I didn’t realize how vulnerable she felt or how helpless.
Mom was 31 when they discovered the lump in her breast and performed a lumpectomy. Due to the type of breast cancer (ductal carcinoma) and its presence in her lymph nodes, they wanted to do a mastectomy. Years later, when I was a teenager and old enough to understand, Mom said she didn’t think she could emotionally handle losing part of what makes you a woman.
Fifteen years later, a lot had changed. My parents were divorced and my brother and I both had busy lives with school and jobs. During a regular doctor’s visit, blood work came back abnormal for my mother and more tests had to be run. The cancer had returned, but this time the enemy wasn’t breast cancer but ovarian (Stage 4).
“How unlucky can she be?” I found myself wondering.
Fortunately, we had one of the best surgical OB-GYN oncologists in the state. After being in surgery for more than eight hours, I’ll never forget listening to him describe the tumors he removed and their sizes and shapes. Some were compared to grapefruits, others as baseballs and one as a steak. It was critical for him to remove as much of the cancer as they could. Because Mom had received so much radiation previously, it was no longer a treatment option.
After a few complications, chemotherapy, and radiation, she eventually went another round with cancer and won! I know it wasn’t easy for her and it was hard for us to watch her struggle. I’d love to say that she kept regular appointments with her physician, but that’s not the case. Maybe it was fear or denial, I don’t know. I can proudly say that she never let us see her angry and we never saw her point fingers or place blame. Mom stayed strong in her faith and believed that God wouldn’t give her more than she could handle.
Our mother was the picture of health when she was cancer free. She rarely got sick, had low blood pressure and the resting heart rate of a marathon runner. She had a weakness for desserts, but otherwise ate lots of fruit and vegetables, very little red meat and only had alcohol on her birthday or special occasions. I always joked that she was healthier than me … even if she was “old”.
Unless she was encouraging someone to get a mammogram, Mom never mentioned her cancer. Years after she won her first battle, she returned to college and finished her undergraduate degree. Later, after my parents divorced and as a single parent working full-time, she went back to school again and got her masters in social work.
Several years later, Mom was at her internist’s office for a standard physical when he found a lump. “Nothing to worry about,” Mom said, “Its just scar tissue.” He insisted, given her history, that she have a mammogram performed immediately by an experienced radiologist at the cancer center. You have no idea how many times I’ve thanked him since for his discovery and follow-up.
Thanks to Dr. Gamble’s discovery, we caught the cancer early and even though it was aggressive, we were able to spend quality time with Mom. It was roughly six years after her last fight when she was diagnosed for the third time with breast and ovarian cancer! I was in my final semester of college, when I learned what we were dealing with this time. With Mom’s age, her cancer history and the aggressive nature, doctors thought she had six months.
She was told to retire and get her affairs in order. She was sad to leave her job as a social worker. She loved working for a women’s shelter and counseling women trying to recover from domestic abuse. Reluctantly, she retired with medical disability and once again started fighting for her life. Even though they only gave her 6 months to live, what they couldn’t factor in was Mom’s faith, and her desire to live to see my brother graduate medical school.
Six months eventually became four years.
I moved back in and drove her to the medical center for routine check-ups and chemotherapy. We spent a LOT of time in waiting rooms, waiting, and waiting and….waiting. At night, we watched American Idol and Disney movies in bed with our yellow lab. Holidays were a family event with enough food for an army, even though it was just 5-6 of us. We lived, laughed and loved while she fought as hard as she could with chemo and eventually a radical mastectomy.
Mom lost the battle in March of 2005. She was 61.
My younger brother graduated from medical school just a few months later in May. I wanted to share this story to encourage those that are fighting cancer, for those that are survivors and for the caregivers cheering them on. Be strong and fight!
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and October is Breast Cancer awareness month. Remember to perform regular self breast exams and please make sure to schedule regular physicals and mammograms.
In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and to support Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Chamberlain will offer their popular Universal Garage Door Remote Clicker (KLIK1PR)in signature pink packaging for purchase online from October to November 2012. During this inaugural pink packaging campaign, Chamberlain will also donate at least $25,000 to support Susan G. Komen’s promise to end breast cancer forever. The special Clicker can be purchased online at Amazon and major home improvement retailers on October 1.