My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer after her very first mammogram when she was 42 years old. After consulting with doctors and considering all the options, my parents elected for my mother to have a bilateral mastectomy. Her breasts were never rebuilt and she wore prosthesis the rest of her life. I was 8 years old and in 3rd grade.
In 1987, breast cancer was just coming into the forefront of culture as a problem. This was before pink ribbons and breast cancer walks. Some of my earliest memories of are of my mother in the hospital following her surgery. When she came home she was in immense pain for months. Luckily her cancer was not advanced enough to illicit chemotherapy or radiation treatment. My sister and I would encourage her to do her finger crawls up the walls because she couldn’t lift her arms fully above her head for a long time. Through all of this, my mother kept her trademark sense of humor. She had a million mastectomy jokes she didn’t mind telling to anyone who would listen. She also went back to walking her usual 6 miles every morning two weeks following her surgery. Her doctor said she healed faster and better than any of his other patients because of her positive attitude, sense of humor, and exercise.
I learned at the age of 8 the depth of my mother’s courage and her grace and dignity in difficult circumstances. She will always be a hero to me for the way she handled this horrible period of her life. I also learned at the age of 8 to be afraid of my breasts (that I didn’t have yet), that they could one day kill me. I have a million pink ribbon pins sitting in my jewelry box. I’ve spent 26 years of my life waiting to get cancer. Because of this, three years ago I pressed my care provider to test me for the breast cancer gene. I can’t describe the relief that I felt when I got the results saying I did not have it. It is nothing something I have passed down to my daughter. It is not something I share with my sister or my new niece. Still, I could still possibly get it.
My beloved, wonderful, intelligent, funny cousin Jennifer is now battling this disease. She is at the end of her chemo and I hope we never hear from this cancer again. She has been an inspiration to me as I’ve witnessed her courage and humor from her posts on Facebook. She does more athletically sick than I do well. She’s amazing. And I know she has her bad days, her down days, her sad days, and she is allowed every one of them. This disease has affected too many of the people I love. Too many friends. Too many family members. Too many brave, courageous women.
So what can you to help? Do your monthly self-breast exams, ladies. Get a yearly physical and have your physician check your breasts. As soon as you can, demand a mammogram (my midwife thinks I should be getting one by my 35th birthday). Take your health into your own hands. And guys, don’t forget that you have breast tissue too and can also get breast cancer (see Quincy Jones). And after you’ve done all that, consider donating to breast cancer charities. Check out this great website for National Breast Cancer Awareness month. There you can check out a list of participating organizations and visit their store.
And if you know someone who has breast cancer give them a big hug from me. Tell them how my amazing mother, Sue, kicked it’s butt and they can too.