As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to an end, I felt the desire to share part of an article I wrote a little over a year ago. Of course, the article was not “perfect” so I never showed it to anyone—until now. Writing about my mother and our struggle with her breast cancer was cathartic but also terrifying. I had to face the reality that while I was fortunate enough to have the skills to advocate for my mother, ultimately I had no real say in the outcome of her disease.
In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Being with life is being one with now. You then realize that you don’t live your life, but life lives you. Life is the dancer. You are the dance.” However much we’d like to, we don’t control what life brings to us and yes, shit happens. What we can control is the choice to face our struggles head on and then fight like hell to survive.
(Excerpt from 2009 article)
At thirty years old, I have taken on the role of my mother’s health advocate. Since she informed me of her breast cancer diagnosis in late 2008, I have done copious research on her disease. I’ve flown from New York to Florida to be at my mother’s surgeries and appointments. I have spent hours online and on the telephone while attempting to keep the tears and thoughts of her impending doom at bay. I’ve done this because I believe I can help save her. But each time I hear another story of someone’s loved one dying of cancer, I wonder if I have any power at all.
My mother’s cancer is HER 2 positive. This kind of breast cancer grows fast, and until recently, came with a poorer prognosis than cancer that did not express the HER 2+ gene. Before a breakthrough, targeted therapy called Herceptin came along, HER 2+ breast cancer was considered a veritable death sentence, regardless of the stage of the cancer, because of its aggressiveness and severe reoccurrence rate. Now, there is more hope. Studies show increases in survival rates with women taking Herceptin. Still, not all make it to ten or even five years.
It doesn’t help the situation that my mother continues to envelop me with her anxiety or that her thinking is somewhat insensible. My mother refers to her disease as that “H2 thing.” She has no idea about the details of her conditions, how the treatments work, or even what her odds of survival are. Though I’ve tried to inform her and persuade her to research on the Internet, she refuses. She reads the little pamphlets they give her at the doctor’s office and freaks out when anyone mentions the possible side effects of chemo.
“My bones are already bad,” she tells me. “I don’t want to be an old lady, hobbling around with a cane.”
“I’d rather see you with a cane than not see you at all,” I say.
“I don’t want to live like that. I need to be able to do what I want and not feel stuck.”
You’d be pretty stuck in a coffin. She doesn’t get it.
When did I become her parent? This is not a good time for this to happen, ten or fifteen years from now, maybe. I’m still trying building a life for myself. I don’t have a husband and kids to help me deal with this.
I worry about every piece of advice I give my mom. I worry that the doctors look at my mother as just another patient, a paycheck. I worry something will happen to her, and I won’t be there. It’s all bullshit, and it doesn’t seem fair. Did this role fall on me because I’ve always been the hyper vigilant child while my younger brother carries on like a frat boy? The truth is, it is my responsibility, and there is no one else I trust to handle it. It is my mother we’re talking about, and she’s everything.
Other than my mother, there has never been another person that I knew would always be there, always choose me over anyone else. So when the threat of that one person being taken away has occurred, I find myself in unfamiliar territory. I don’t know how I would survive if I lost my mother or what the point would be. I don’t want to be left alone. So I educate myself and stand on watch. I am ready for a fight. I will not let go.
Photography by the brilliant Gregory Colbert: http://www.ashesandsnow.org/