On July 5th, 2013 my beautiful mother was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). She had just turned 41 and she had known going into her routine mammogram that there was a small lump in her breast which she summed up to simply nothing. Why would it be anything? She was a picture of perfect health: young, healthy, exercised daily, didn’t smoke, she even measured out her cereal every now and then. Her doctor suggested scheduling a mammogram in your birthday month as a present to yourself, but May had always been busy so the mammogram found itself on the back burner for a couple weeks. She had just gone to the OB/GYN in March, where they said everything was completely normal, no reason to be worried. However after she did get her mammogram she got a call from the doctor asking her to come back for an ultrasound, still no reason to be worried they just wanted a closer look. Well a closer look turned into a scheduled biopsy after they as well noticed the lump my mom had brushed away before. Odds of it being anything at all were slim to none, she was young, boobs did weird things all the time. There was still nothing to be worried about.
She went into the biopsy nervous anyway. A cold table, unwelcoming hospital smell, a long needle, all things she had to go in and face by herself. My dad wasn’t allowed to go in with her and my sister and I had no idea any of this was even going on. Hadley and I were way to excited about the family vacation we had scheduled in the upcoming few days to New York to even notice our mom’s unusual amount of doctors visits.
After the biopsy, the doctor said they would call with any information once the test results got back. My parents considered postponing the trip, but with Fourth of July coming up my mom didn’t really expect to receive any news quickly, so we all crowded into the car and kept with our plans. A couple days went by and there was still no phone call. No anything. July Fourth passed and the next day we went into New York City. Hadley and I were excited for this part the most, the American Girl store, the Build-a- Bear workshop bigger than anything we’ve ever seen, it was any 11 and 8-year-olds dream.
When my mom talks about that day, she says she can see it all perfectly, remembers everything down to the last detail. It was humid, my curly hair was crazier than normal. My Mom, Dad, Grandma, Hadley and myself were all standing in line for McDonalds when she got a call. Her face changed immediately and she along with my dad went outside to answer the phone. I didn’t think much of it, it was noisy in there why wouldn’t she go outside? I didn’t know that less than 100 feet from where I was ordering a small fry, there was a doctor telling my mom that he’s very sorry but the cells they pulled from her breast were cancerous.
The way she tells the story still makes my heart drop.
She said it was as if she was no longer in her body. The whole world was still moving around, but her world had just stopped. Like a dramatic scene in a movie, except this wasn’t a movie, this was her life.
Hadley and I both got American Girl dolls that day (talk about feeling guilty), yet they didn’t tell us anything until we got back from vacation. My mom said that that was one of the hardest parts, doing all of those things with us in New York and no longer knowing if we would ever get to do them together again.
The week after we got back, my parents sat Hadley and I down and told us all of it. The medical and technical stuff we didn’t understand, but the main message we got perfectly. Our mom had cancer.
The next few months were a blur.
I have a hard time remembering them and I don’t know if it’s because I was young or if I just blocked them out. I distinctly remember, however, the day my mother shaved her head. I had gotten my uncontrollable curly hair from her, and while her hair had since calmed down, watching her shave it off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. She wanted to do it on her own terms before the chemo did, and as empowering as that is I personally had never felt so helpless. It made it all very real, this was happening and there was nothing I could do about it.
She had eight rounds of chemo and each one more brutal than the last. I’d go into detail, but the way I saw my mom during that time was something no one should ever have to see their parent go through. In October I got a text from my dad, a video of her ringing a bell in the middle of the hospital which means she completed the chemo. Nurses and doctors were clapping, she was laughing, and my dad was cheering. It was a milestone. Maybe mild looking at how much longer it all went on for after that, but a milestone none the less.
The next step was a bilateral mastectomy and then reconstruction surgeries, which all took place over the course of the following two years. I sat down with her and we tried to count the number of times she went under the knife but we couldn’t… we’d always seem to forget one.
I’ve never been much of an emotional person; I’ve gotten a whole lot better at letting myself feel emotions through the years (thanks therapy), but my go to strategy for dealing with things was to just flip off the feelings and do it. That being said, the amount of growing up I did in that time was hard to believe, especially looking back. Twelve years old is a time when you need your mom, and I have no idea how she managed to do it, but she didn’t let cancer keep her from being my mother.
During that time however, it was also clear how much my mom needed me. She used to be able to balance four laundry baskets, pack me a lunch, and get ready for work all at the same time. But during those days I’d come home from school and she would need help walking up the stairs. The dynamic between Hadley and I changed as well. Since those months we’ve grown closer everyday. I’d help her with homework, she’d come sleep in my room when mom was having bad reactions to the chemo, we’d have little dance parties in the bathroom (which we still do), and she was able to take my mind off of anything I didn’t want to think about.
My dad was a saint as well, he was always a very “motherly dad”, involved to no end, showed up for everything, and while he sometimes forgot I had gymnastics on Tuesdays, he never forgot to let us know how much we were loved.
Looking at the way cancer is portrayed in our society, it’s easy to rally behind the pink ribbon. It’s cute and simple, but cancer is nothing like that. There’s nothing cute about what it did to my family, and there’s nothing simple about the effects it left behind. Out of my tight family of four, there is not a single aspect of any of our lives that wasn’t affected.
My mom told me once that she was never afraid of dying, she had lived her life. She fought so hard because she didn’t want to leave Hadley and I without a mother. She had a bucket-list like most people do (go to Europe, go zip-lining in Costa Rica, etc.), but there was never any rush to finish it until she got sick. She said in that moment the only thing on her bucket-list was to watch her kids grow up. That thought hits me harder than any of it.
I think back to all the times over the last 5 years and how they would’ve been different if I didn’t have my mom. She wouldn’t have been there to cheer me on at dance competitions or watch endless amounts of trashy TV with. There would’ve been no one to edit my papers or to sit in the kitchen and gossip with me about life. No one to hold me when I cried about boys, or tear up and embarrass when she’s taking a bunch of pictures before school dances. No one to yell at me when I sassed her, or laugh with me at sarcastic comments. I would’ve been missing my go to source for advice (even though I will never admit it again, she always seems to know what to do), and my go to person to complain with. I would’ve lost not only my mom, but also one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had.
So believe me when I say that I am the luckiest girl in the world to have had my mother beat cancer. Some people, however, aren’t that lucky.
It’s easy to get caught up in the small issues in life, to throw pity parties for ourselves. But looking at what my family and millions of other families have to go through, it puts a lot of it in perspective. Life is so short, and you never know when it’s going to flip you upside down, put you through the wringer, or simply end. So why would you waste days focusing on things that don’t make you happy? Spend time with the people you care about and make sure they know you care, because when it all comes crumbling down, they are the ones who help you build it back up. Get familiar with that feeling where even if only for a split second everything is right in the world, because there are going to be so many days where nothing feels right at all. Don’t take for granted the people around you and don’t be afraid to fight for what you want, whether that be something or someone. Hold the people you love a little tighter and don’t take a single second with them for granted because all it takes is a second for everything to change.