Breast cancer as family issue, density, Detection, Health Writing Activist Monthly Challenge, JP Drains, know your body, mammograms, Mammograms, self-exam, Stage 2 breast cancer, warrior, World Cancer Day
“Write a post about the first time you did something. What is it? What was it like? What did you learn from it?”
The first time I realized that my breast cancer was not just about me was when my fourteen year old daughter decided to break her silence about it. In her own way. On Facebook. It was World Cancer Day 2012 I didn’t even know there was such a day. Until then, I had known only about Breast Cancer Awareness October when the weather in Phoenix is perfect for racing for a cure and raising over a million dollars. This past October, I was on a business trip, a little sad that my daughter and I would not be participating in the annual Komen Phoenix Race for the Cure as we had done three times before. In retrospect, of course, I am very glad. Glad that it wasn’t until October 30th, at almost the end of the pinkest month, that I would find the lump on my breast, the lump that within a week would be deemed malignant. A sneaky cancer that had grown over the years, it had taken up residence in the dense tissue of my right breast, evaded three mammograms, and lulled me into a false sense of security. Had I known during October, I’m not sure how well I would have handled all the pink. Impossible to hide from it, its pink ribbons emblazoned on license plates and yogurt lids; the local grocery store’s labels on plastic water bottles that still contain BPA, the very chemical that may have contributed to my cancer; and the cheerleading squad clad in pink T-shirts bearing the slogan “feel for lumps, save your bumps.” Hook, line, and sinker, like countless others, I had stupidly fallen for October’s illogical message to race for a cure for breast cancer without knowing what caused it. By the end of the first week in November, my perspective had changed. Indignant and reluctant, I had quickly grown to resent the nomenclature of breast cancer. Far from a “warrior in pink;” I was more the obedient child, a passive and impatient patient who dutifully showed up for appointments and procedures, surgeries and second opinions.
I cannot say the same for my darling girl. My only child. Now there’s a warrior. I am quite undone by the very thought of her having to battle so hard to keep the tears from falling and the fear at bay; to stare down the dread that her mom might die too soon. In my mind are juxtaposed two images of my child – in the first, she leans on her beloved dad and he on her while they wait together for surgeons bearing good tidings; in the other, she is an infant still, asleep and swaddled, nestled perfectly in the space between the crook of his arm and the tips of his fingers. She didn’t want to be the kid with the sick mom. Who would? She didn’t want concessions or sympathy from her teachers or for her friends to feel awkward around her, during what is unquestionably one of the most awkward phases of her life. Fourteen. Shouldn’t fourteen be reserved for rebelling a bit and rolling your eyes at your mother’s taste in clothes or music because, well, she’s your mother? For pushing boundaries and buttons and experimenting with the way you sign your name or style your hair? That’s how fourteen was for me. For my daughter, however, this rite of passage has been forever marred by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, before which she didn’t have to feel quite so guilty about perfectly acceptable acts of rebellion. It is unforgivably unfair. But that’s the nature of breast cancer, isn’t it? Unfair. Lest I forget how it has interrupted her life, I am considering again today the first time my daughter spoke of the cancer that came to our house like a thief in the night . . .
“Each and every one of you reading this note, know this: you are important to me. And I don’t ever want to lose you. Please be aware. Do not think that just because you’re you, breast cancer won’t harm you. Infect you. Frighten your family. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. You can’t escape from it. And my mom, my dad, and I had to come face to face with that harsh reality. On November 11th of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She told me everything her doctor had told her. About how she had three tumors, and how they had been probably hiding there for five to seven years. Three. Three of them, just sitting in there for all that time, and they could never be found by her mammograms because they were hidden so well amongst her tissue. Fortunately, two of the three were benign, meaning they would not hurt her. They were not cancerous. However, one of them was a cancer. Malignant. My mother’s right breast had a cancerous tumor. My mom had cancer. Mom had cancer. I didn’t hear much of what she said. After she said “tumor” and that only “two out of three” were benign, I stopped listening. I couldn’t hear her. All I could say was, “But you’re going to be okay…. right?” I asked that question maybe four times in a row. I remember later on she and my dad told me about the next doctor’s appointment, during which she would find out which surgery was best for her. A lumpectomy or a mastectomy. It sounded like she was hoping for a lumpectomy, which would only remove the tumor. It sounded simpler, but it also meant radiation. Which is nasty. A mastectomy means remove a whole breast. Soon I found out my mom’s treatment required a mastectomy. I would be out of school for a week. That week, I stayed at my mom’s best friend’s house; Amanda’s house. Amanda is like our own family; she has known me ever since I was little. I stayed at her house while my mom was going through surgery. Seven and a half hours. An entire school day of waiting. Then my dad, who waited the whole seven and a half hours in the hospital, called to tell me the news. My mom was okay. The surgeons were very happy with the results of not only the removal of the tumor, but the reconstruction of her entire breast. I remember seeing her in the ICU, when she woke up from the surgery. Her skin was so white, as pale as Boo Radley’s. Her normally inky blue eyes now reminded me of a colorless sky. I cried at the sight of her. She had been given lots of morphine and other medicine, so she was way beyond groggy. Out of it. She looked deathly, but she was able to smile and squeeze my hand. She asked me what day it was….four times. Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. I cried. My dad cried. We just stood there crying, rejoicing in the fact that my mom was going to be all right. After removing her original breast and the cancer, her surgeons used skin and tissue and fat from her abdomen and molded it into the shape of a new breast. It was amazing. Today, her reconstructed breast looks almost identical to the other one. Made from her own skin, it looks fine. Just a bit bruised. But those bruises will fade, and this cancer will become just a bad memory. Unfortunately, we still have some healing to do. There’s a large scar across her abdomen, and it hurts her to stand up straight, or if she lifts her right arm too high, it hurts. And then there are the tubes and the three surgical drains. Attached to my mom were three tubes which then attached to what looked like little plastic grenades. Every day, I’d help drain the bloody fluid from them and record how much on a chart. Two have been removed, now there’s only one drain left, attached to a tube from a hole under her right arm. And then there’s always the fear that the cancer may return. Yes, her cancer was removed, but maybe there was some that the doctors couldn’t find and it could scare us again. It could invade my mother’s body once more. It could invade anybody. Which is why I’m begging: get yourself checked out. Find out your breast density. Do self-exams. Please. And it’s not just women. Men can get it too. SO if you’re a guy and you’re wondering why I tagged you in this, there’s your reason. So please. My mom discovered her cancer before it had spread into her lymph nodes. She got lucky, because she found the lump by accident and because her doctor made her get an ultrasound. She learned just in time that her negative mammograms had missed the cancer. Many women, just like my mom, never even check their own breasts, even though they have been told over and over. It is so important to know what our breasts normally feel like, so we can notice when they change. So please take the steps to know your breasts. Know your body!”