During the first year of college, the world can seem so bright, cheery and hopeful. You can’t imagine anything could come along and taint life as you know it.
For me, I remember the day that darkened my life – something my 18-almost-19-year-old self never thought would happen – the day I found out my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society’s website, one in eight women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Eighty-five percent of those women will have had no family history of the disease. For those of us with family history in the form of a “first-degree relative” (mother, daughter, sister), the risk of getting breast cancer doubles.
In the days leading up to her disclosure, I knew something was a little off. I had been feeling homesick and a little down. Instead of encouraging me to keep going and telling me it would be okay, my mom actually offered to pay for me to come home.
The day I arrived in Hawaii, it was a beautiful, sunny day – a stark contrast to the news I was about to receive.
My mother sat me down and began to tell me she had breast cancer. I remember just sitting there, still and quiet with tears pouring down my face, thinking, “How could this be? How could my mother, a pillar of strength in our family, have cancer? Is she going to die?”
You see, when my mom was 14, she found out she had a lump in her breast that turned out to be a cyst. Every so often, she would go in to the doctor’s office to have the liquid removed and tested, always with negative findings. Then in early 2003, when she was 44 years old, the cyst became cancerous, and it was then I learned how a woman who I thought was strong could become even more so.
I always looked up to and respected my mother as a symbol of a strong woman and someone whom I wanted to be like when I grew up. She always maintained a positive outlook and was strong in her faith. We may have had our moments like any mother and daughter would, but I always knew how much she loved me, and I could go to her for anything.
After her surgery as she lay in her hospital bed, I watched her struggle not to get sick from the morphine the doctor’s had given her.
The only thing that kept going through my mind was, “Is my mom going to die? She seems so weak. I can’t believe this is happening.” We still at the time didn’t know yet if the cancer had only been in the cyst or if it had spread. And, she still had to go through chemotherapy.
For a teenager who’d had a pretty easy life, this was the scariest thing I’d ever gone through.
Luckily, my mother had a great group of friends from church and work, who helped give her the extra support she needed – and they helped my sister and me out, bringing us meals and providing emotional support.
During her battle to recovery, the tables were turned. At the young age of 18, I was the one who had to take care of her, making sure she was clean and comfortable.
My mother seemed so frail when I took her home, but I knew she really wasn’t.
In the coming weeks, I saw strength pour out of her as she went through chemotherapy and did her best to take care of her two daughters. Never once did I hear her complain or wish for a different life. Never once did I see her turn from her faith – if anything, this ordeal made her grow stronger in her faith.
When the results came back, she was told the cancer had in fact been only in her cyst, which had been removed during the surgery before chemo treatments. As she continued through chemo, she lost her hair and decided to wear her baldness proudly (part of the reason was because wigs made her head itch). By the fall, she had gained much of her strength back, and I headed off to college again.
I remember when I saw her later in the spring of 2004; she walked up to my dorm, looking healthy as ever. Her hair was growing back in, curlier than before, and all I could think was how weird it was to see hair on my mother’s head again. I had gotten so used to her bald head, that it was weird to see the “salt and pepper” color of her hair.
Cancer is not unknown to us, as it runs in our family. My mother’s mother had breast cancer, and then later died of ovarian cancer when my mom was young. Because of the family history, my mother knew what to watch out for and caught the cancer early. However, family history or not, everyone should know the signs and symptoms.
As women, we should be doing our own breast self examinations and going to our women’s health appointments. Once at the right age, we should have our mammograms annually.
But, women are not the only people who can get breast cancer. I remember my mother talking about the man in her breast cancer group who had been diagnosed – he never thought it could happen. According to the American Cancer Society’s website, about one out of 1,000 men are at risk. The Society estimates that more than 2,000 men were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2011.
That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the factors and risks that can increase our chances, and, to be aware of the disease itself.
My mother, whom I already respected, became my biggest hero the year she survived cancer. If I am ever diagnosed, I hope I will fight and survive like my mother and the 2.6 million U.S. citizens who have survived breast cancer.
By Staff Sgt. Amanda Dick
Air Force Public Affairs Agency