She was younger than I was when she received her first diagnosis.
She was 35 years old.
By the time she received her diagnosis, the breast cancer had already begun to spread. The ugly cells had multiplied and had started the process of invading her body. They are sneaky, those cancer cells. They don’t stay put. They hide themselves very easily. By the age of 35, those sneaky, ugly cells had already begun to invade the muscles in her back and were trying their best to find their way through the rest of her body. Those ugly cells wanted her dead.
She was 35 years old.
She was a mother of seven.
I often wonder what went through her mind when the doctor told her that she might die.
Was she afraid? Did she cry? Did her mind race wondering who would take care of her children? Did she not even entertain the idea of dying?
She didn’t die. Not then.
I am two years older than my grandmother was when she received her first diagnosis. I am a mother. The thought of receiving a cancer diagnosis terrifies me.
Breast cancer runs in my family. Great aunts, grandmothers, and cousins have all lost their battles to the disease.
That's why when I found my first lump at age 19, the fear took my breath away. My hand slid across the tiny hard lump while I was in the shower, and I poked and pushed at it, hoping that it would dissappear. When I brought it to my doctor, I was sure he was going to tell me that it was nothing to worry about. That at 19, I was too young to even think about breast cancer. Instead, he sent me for an ultrasound and a biopsy. I could feel the lump burning inside my left breast, day and night, until I received the results of those tests. I was secretly mad at my grandmother for potentially passing this gene onto me. Of all the things she could have given me, this is what I got?
My test came back days later: benign.
In the years since I have discovered a few lumps, each time bringing it to my doctors attention, each time going through a barrage of tests: ultrasounds, mammograms, or biopsies. Every single time I hold my breath until I hear the word "benign." I have been lucky that every test has come back benign, yet I still find myself holding my breath, praying that I don't hear the word "cancer."
The issue of genetic testing came up years ago, before I had children. My own mother decided against the test. The question now runs through my mind; should I be proactive and find out if I have the gene, or should I be proactive with regular self-checks and doctor visits?
I wish I could ask my grandmother what choice she would make. If she could go back in time and know what the future held, would she make the choice to have surgery to remove her breasts in anticipation of the terrible disease that would wind its way into the fabric of her life? I wish I could ask her if she ever worried how her breast cancer would impact her children or the legacy it would leave for her grandchildren.
My grandmother received her second diagnosis of breast cancer just over 20 years after the first. In between these diagnoses, she battled uterine cancer and throat cancer. Cancer became like an unwelcome guest in her life, one that always shows up at the most inopportune moments.
Her second diagnosis of breast cancer took her slowly. For years, those cancer cells slowly made their way up her body, finding a home in her brain.
In the end, breast cancer won the last round. Her battle started at age 35, and ended before she even saw 70. She fought it long and she fought it hard.
I can only hope that my children will never have to see me suffer. I can only hope that all the research will continue to help women who are diagnosed or who carry the gene.
Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s keep encouraging each other to get regular check-ups.
Let’s keep supporting those that we know and love who are battling this disease.