I just kept staring at those two words… little words, only three syllables, but with potentially monstrous implications. The words were on a button the surgeon was wearing on her white coat as she spoke to my mother following her double mastectomy. I was in a complete daze and on the verge of tears but doing my best to look cheerful and hopeful for my dear mother who was scared for her life and in a fog after having her chest carved out. My father was an absolute wreck. My much younger sister (a tender 22 years old) seemed to be handling it all better than I was. She’s an old soul while I can be an emotional basketcase (like my dad). Luckily, my brother is a doctor and, having seen his fair share of trauma as a cardiologist, was clearheaded enough to absorb what she was saying.
This was January 11, 2013. Two weeks and three days prior on Christmas night, my parents told us Mom had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember feeling like the floor fell out from under me as I watched my parents crumble in front of us. A malignant tumor in her left breast. Growing aggressively. Now visible with a glance in the mirror. Worrisome cysts and calcification in her right breast. Surgery. Double mastectomy. Treatment to follow. When? Where? Why??? Tearful questions and answers while my father, wracked with sobs, kept saying he wished he were the one with the tumor.
I could tell they were bracing for the worst. My beautiful, bright, and vibrant mother facing a health crisis.
We felt helpless. What can we do? We wanted her to have the surgery immediately, remove the evil tumor that was causing pain and hopelessness. But it was a holiday with another to soon follow, so January 11th was the earliest it could happen with hospital and physician scheduling… an interminable two weeks and three days.
I changed my flight to return to LA a few days later than planned so I could be home to support my mother and keep her spirits up. My brother and sister also changed their schedules. We hired a housekeeper so Mom didn’t have to think about dusting and scrubbing bathrooms. Sixty-three years old and the woman has never had a regular housekeeper. My uncle came by to take a family photo of us, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether that would be the last one. We coordinated with my aunt, who’s a nurse, so she could be with Mom after surgery when we all had to return to work. We watched funny movies and tried to take our minds off the dreaded C word.
So how did this happen? My mom takes care of herself, has zero cancer in her family that she’s aware of, and dutifully gets an annual mammogram every October. After this year’s mammogram, she was called to the back for an additional ultrasound. A few days later she received a card in the mail directing her to schedule a repeat mammogram in six months because of a small cyst the radiologist saw. But she felt something was wrong. She had pain in her breast that was increasing by the day. She could feel the culprit. Weeks passed. She called the doctor and was insistent about getting a needle biopsy. Tests came back positive for cancer and she was diagnosed with invasive lobular cancer in early December.
As we crowded around her hospital bed, I noticed the surgeon was smiling. “All looks good!” Really? It does? We had all been holding our breath. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes and the margins were clear. The surgery had been a success! Tears of joy and relief. We went from believing we may lose our beloved mother to feeling encouraged and tremendously grateful she’s got a second chance.
To me, she’s an extremely talented artist and has begun painting again. We’re planning a vacation with her this summer. Life is a beautiful thing and there’s a new appreciation for it in my family. I’ve always admired my mother for her wisdom and tenacity, but now I also see her as a shining example of why it’s important to always be your own advocate. Trust your intuition. We feel if she had waited six months as directed by the doctor, this story may have had a different outcome.
Cancer sucks. And we have to help one another do what we can to fight it and survive it.