If you know me personally or we’re friendly on social media, you know that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over a month ago. She missed a mammogram, detected a mass, had it biopsied and was diagnosed with DCIS and invasive ductal carcinoma in her right breast.
A few years ago, she had a benign cyst removed from her left breast. Leading up to her diagnosis, all the procedures and symptoms were the same, so I didn’t think there was any reason to think things would turn out differently this time, especially since we have no family history of breast of ovarian cancer whatsoever. Then, her surgeon set her up with an oncologist.
We knew off the bat that she wouldn’t need an appointment with an oncologist unless she was positive for a malignancy, but it still stung worse than I thought it would when he said the words out loud. I went with her (imagine hearing that news alone?) and they told us in an exam room. I always pictured getting news like that across a desk, with an old doctor wearing glasses, seated far away from us and reading over a chart, very formal. In reality, her pathology results weren’t even finalized yet, and her doctor sat on a rolling stool a foot away from us when he confirmed that it was breast cancer. We had been bracing ourselves for the worst but I still broke down. My first instinct was sheer and absolute terror (probably shock too) and if that’s how I felt, I can’t imagine what she was thinking. I hate to even think it, but thoughts of her never getting to meet my future kids flashed across my mind in the few seconds or so after he said the words, and I just burst into tears. Everyone says to be strong for the patient and let them feed on your positivity and I swear I had been practicing just in case, but I’m embarrassed to say that I just could not help myself. My mom is the best friend I’ve ever had and the best person I’ve ever known, and there were so many emotions running high at that minute that they all just spilled out of my eyes. All I needed was reassurance and the doctor sensed that, because he handed me a tissue and told us immediately, as gently as possible, that this was very treatable and that she would be okay. He said “she’s not going anywhere.” So I composed myself (and my mom never broke down in the office because she’s some kind of superhero) and we got to business. He explained the diagnosis as best he could with the information he had, and also went over the possible tests and treatments that loomed in our future. He initially said she would need “the works,” referring to chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and hormone therapy.
As weeks went by, more tests were done and more results came in. We went from facing chemo first (to shrink the mass) followed up with a lumpectomy, all the way to Mom needing a bilateral mastectomy followed up with chemo. She ended up having something called atypical ductal hyperplasia in her left breast as well as the 3cm tumor in her right breast. ADH is not cancer, but a “pre-cancer” as her oncologist referred to it, meaning it could turn into cancer and it would be safer to just remove the breast tissue now to prevent that from happening. The ultrasound done on her lymph nodes came back negative but we will have a more definitive answer after surgery, which will then dictate her course of chemo and whether she needs radiation.
We’ve gotten into a bit of a routine: we have one or two doctors’ appointments a week and immediately after we leave the office, I text our family and friends the updates we have so that Mom doesn’t have to repeat herself or answer a lot of questions. It’s easier for her this way, because she’s getting so much information at each appointment that it’s better to let it settle with her before she has to talk about it. Everyone always asks me first “how is she doing?” and the truth is, it varies wildly. She’s usually bummed after we leave the doctor, and then if we don’t have another appointment for a week, she’s fine. Almost like she forgets about the diagnosis (maybe not forgets, but she lets life distract her – she isn’t distraught in between appointments) and then the hospital and tests bring her crashing back to reality. The testing/waiting part has been really hard, since we can’t take action and start treatment until we know everything we’re dealing with, and the emotional roller coaster that’s come with the diagnosis and subsequent tests has been hard to manage. One day, we got a preliminary pathology report that said it was negative in her lymph nodes. They called her to tell her and when she called me at work to relay the news, I could literally hear the relief in her voice. She sounded happy and hopeful for the first time since she’d been diagnosed. And then, we were told in person that afternoon that she had ADH in her left breast and would need a double mastectomy, so we went from a high to a low.
The doctors, nurses and technicians we’ve seen have been so wonderful, which has made the process easier. My mom is extremely claustrophobic, and she was really scared to get an MRI. The office was really accommodating and let me go in to the procedure with her, and the technician was so empathetic and kind and considerate of her fears that my mom gave her a big hug when it was over to say thank you for making it easier. I can’t count how many hugs she’s given to nurses and aides that have been sweet to her throughout the exams and tests.
Other than the people themselves, nothing about the experience has been pleasant, and I don’t know how to help make it easier on her. When someone goes through something tragic or earth shattering, my instinct is to say “it’s going to be okay” and “we’ll get through this,” but I’m learning that there are some times when those words don’t help. I like to fix problems, so it’s a hard concept for me to accept but I’m trying. One day, my brother just let her cry it out while he sat with her, because that’s what she needed. She didn’t need to be patted on the head and told it’s okay, because it’s not okay. It sucks, and sometimes “it’s okay” can trivialize the struggle. As someone who’s trying to find the right balance to offer support, it’s hard to find the positive energy that everyone talks about when it feels miserable and unfair, but there’s a learning curve that they don’t tell you about. I can sense how my mom feels in different moments and I try, above all, to make her laugh. Making her laugh lightens the mood and breaks the ice so that we can get to talking about practicalities and logistics. Right before she was diagnosed, our first time in the oncologist office, we were in the waiting room and I said something that made her laugh so hard that we both cried. That silent laugh where your stomach hurts because you’re trying to be quiet, so the laugh comes out your eyes instead. The receptionist saw us and said “that’s so important, to have someone who makes you laugh.” I figure she must know what she’s talking about, being surrounded by cancer patients every day.
When laughing isn’t appropriate, I give her a hug or hold her hand. We’re trying to find the balance between giving cancer the respect it deserves (so that we can kick its ass) and not letting it rule our lives.
I’ve been doing a lot of research online at night, trying to find the best ways I can help her cope and make things easier. There are obvious things, like cooking and cleaning that will be hard or impossible for her at certain points in treatment, but there are a few other things I’ve found in the last month or so that I’m hoping help her too. I’m sharing here in case they can help someone else, and also in case anyone reading has gone through something similar and has advice to share that they found helpful. Something that has amazed me since her diagnosis is not only the number of people that have experienced cancer, and breast cancer in particular, in their families or personally, but also the empathy and compassion. We are a very close knit family who has always relied on only each other so I never, ever thought it would help to talk so openly about something like this. I was very wrong. I can’t begin to put into words how wonderful the support and encouragement from family, friends, acquaintances and strangers has been. I can’t speak for my mom, but I know it helps me personally to have people who love her rooting for her, and it makes it easier for me to find the positivity and the light when other people are lifting us up.
It breaks my heart that she has to go through this. She’s spent her whole life working, taking care of her family and friends. Working 12 hour days and weekends, making us dinner and lunches, managing Little League and eventually, taking care of her own mom. She’s a mom to everyone she meets – and you understand what I mean if you know her at all. How is it fair that she has to fight cancer now? Well it’s not fair, and there’s no use trying to make sense of it. I will say that it’s been earth shattering in the sense that nothing else matters. Petty things mean nothing to me anymore, everything stupid that used to take over my thoughts has literally shattered and fallen away. All that matters is my mom and getting her healthy. At the end of the day, there are a handful of people who will always be there. My mom is one of them, the ultimate one. She’s been my biggest fan and supporter, my guiding light my whole life and that hasn’t changed or waned in adulthood. She loves Joe like her own son and our dogs like they’re her real grandkids. I can literally see her beam with happiness that I’ve found my soulmate and life partner. She deserves to sit in her blooming rose garden, happily reading a book without a worry in the world, dachshunds by her feet and the sun setting in the distance.
All that being said, I’m going to link a separate post here, with a detailed list of everything I’ve gathered to “help” my mom so far. If you have anything to add that might help, or if you’re going through a hard time too and just want to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out! One last thing I’ve learned so far is the truth of the phrase “no man is an island.” No one can do it alone, and what’s the point of fighting if you don’t have people to pick you up when you fall?