Every October since 1985, Breast Cancer Awareness Month serves as a public reminder of the importance of early detection and preventive care, as well as an acknowledgement of the countless breast cancer patients, survivors, and researchers who do such important work searching for a cure for the disease. For me personally, it is not just in October that I think about this horrible disease. I have been thinking about it, if not indirectly, nearly every day since the moment my dear mom called me in June 2004 to let me know that she had been diagnosed. I still remember exactly where I was standing in my kitchen when I heard the news. It’s strange how traumatic events affect our minds and the memory of that moment and the others that followed can still elicit such an emotional response. I was over six months pregnant with my middle child and up until that very moment, I really had not experienced trauma in my life.
After the initial shock, the next year and a half are just a blur in my memory. Sure…there were the predictable hard moments of supporting her in her journey: doctors, hospitals, procedures, surgery recovery, etc., but there were also holidays, laughter, precious time with my mom and my children together (she used to say that grandparenting was the “absolute best gig” she ever had!), travel, memories made. There was one morning while my parents were visiting Denver to see their new grandchild when my mom showed up at my house in the morning, laughing hysterically. I asked her what was so funny, and she told the story of her chemo hair loss kicking in the night before and her hair falling out in large chunks in her hand. She got the giggles thinking about what the housekeepers must have thought, as they saw her entire head of dark, Greek/Italian curls in the trash. It is odd what can make you laugh in the face of immense pain and sadness.
In the end, my mom’s cancer was not curable. She had been diagnosed with a rare form called inflammatory breast cancer, which is not detected by mammograms and by the time it is detected, has typically progressed to stage IV. She left this world peacefully on a warm April day in 2006 at her home in Riverton, Wyoming with me, my brother, and my dad with her when she took her last breath.
In those last few weeks, I remember wanting to gleam any bits of wisdom I could, and I asked her how she had managed to stay married to my father for over 40 years. “Marriage is so hard,” I said. “How did you do it?” She jokingly said, with a sparkle in her dark eyes and a broad smile, “I have an extreme amount of patience!” A few hours later, she looked serious and asked me to sit down with her and said “I wanted to give you a real answer about how I stayed married to your father for so long. The thing is…I came to the realization years ago that I could leave when things get hard and move on to someone else, but that I would just be trading one set of problems for another. And I decided I would stick with this set of problems and continue to work on them.” Wise words from a dying woman and words that have transformed the way I see long-term relationships. This is just one life lesson I received from my dear mom. Another good one? “The best way to be popular is to be kind to everyone.” She believed this…lived this…and it is something I frequently repeat to my own children. She lives on.
Not all women who are considered “high-risk” for breast cancer choose this route, but recently, I have decided to follow a high-risk protocol that includes one mammogram and one ultrasound per year. It can put you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, however, as sometimes with ultrasound, you can experience false positives and need a biopsy. This can be nerve-racking while you wait for that biopsy appointment and hopefully, the negative result. Challenging, but I have decided that this is the route that makes the most sense for me. My mom did not have options. She was given a terrible diagnosis and went through all the terrible things and in the end, she still lost her battle in less than two years. I do not want that outcome for me or for my children. I am choosing the proactive route and all that comes with it. If I am forced to face what my mom faced, I want to know as early as possible, and I will beat that #@#4! and have more precious time…a gift my mom was not given. I would encourage anyone reading this to consult with your doctor to find out if this course of action might make sense with your background/history and risk level. I also met with a genetic counselor and did a simple blood test to see if I carried a cancer gene for over 70 types of cancer. The testing was covered by my insurance, so I encourage others to check that option out.
I have thought about my mom every single day for over 16 years. She shined a bright light that has not gone out in my memory. One of her favorite poems (she was a recovering English major!) was called First Fig, by Edna St. Vincent Millay and will forever remind me of that light:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!