By Emma Michelle, MA, MBA
When my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t think much of it. When a 74 year old woman gets breast cancer its not much of a surprise. 1 in 4 women get it anyway. I was told she knew about the lump for several years. Luckily it was a slow growing cancer and with chemotherapy, she would be fine. Grandma was a handsome bald lady. Since she always wore her earrings, she looked quite stylish and hip, hardly like a cancer patient at all.
A couple months later, my mother called me with the bad news. She hadn’t had a mammogram in over two years because she had been dealing with her stroke. She had a small tumor, about the size of the tip of a pencil lead, but it had already spread to a lymph node. She was to get a lumpectomy and start chemotherapy in a week.
My mother was 52 years old. I was almost 34 years old. In just a couple month’s period of time, two women close to me were diagnosed with breast cancer.
At first I didn’t feel this news would affect me. I hadn’t been too close to my mother growing up as I lived with my father after their divorce. When I lived with her in high school, she was upset a lot of the time at just about everything. Though I was a good kid, much of my life was censored to her as she seemed ready to blow up at me for any wrong step. And anything but quoting scripture and talking about how much I loved Jesus was unacceptable. I did love Jesus, but it was a very deep thing with me, and her dark and twisty outbursts made me not trust her with my deep stuff.
I walked on egg shells as I tried to be the perfect daughter. And it was a tumultuous relationship after I became my own person. She had mood and personality disorders, plus what I felt was a narrow and misinformed view of scripture and the Christian life. Though I loved her and would do most anything for her, I didn’t feel she reciprocated. I kept my mouth shut toward her because any real thing I talked about, she always had it ten times worse.
She often got upset at me and told me I was just like my father and step mother, and they took me away from her. At one point in my early 30s, I was so tired of this story because I had nothing to do with my parent’s dramas. I stood up to her and told her I was happy they raised me. They were good people and they were there for me. I was happy to be like them. And I told her a few facts about the breakup of my parent’s marriage that she did not know I knew. That stopped her, and we did not talk for many months.
My mother’s mental illness had long been a thorn in my own self development, I was so afraid I would turn ugly like she had. For months, I dealt with the loss I felt inside from not having a normal relationship with my mother. Not my fault. But still I was deeply affected. There was a deep part of my womanhood that was missing because of mom’s issues.
She had a 70% chance of remission after chemotherapy and radiation so was almost certainly going to live. If the cancer came back, she would have a much less chance of recovery. I heard these statistics and they didn’t mean anything to me. No matter how many statistics they throw at you, you never know if you are the percentage who will live or die.
Still, it concerned me how my mother was going to handle going through chemotherapy since she had those whacky mood issues and had still been recovering from a stroke the year prior.
She had a lumpectomy a few days later. I went to the hospital and saw several members of my family, including my cute bald grandmother with her pretty earrings. I kissed her on the top of her head and said, “Hey, sexy!” My grandmother was a strong, silent, non-emotional woman. Never once did she complain about her chemotherapy, nor did she mention how uncomfortable she was. Her personality was to be a brick about everything and to prove she could handle it.
My mother on the other hand, reveled in the attention. She had a captive audience to her situation. She talked in depth and detail about how she found out about her cancer, what it felt like to have a lumpectomy, and what procedures she was going to go through. Everyone else just sat there quiet as mice.
She told me that I had an 11% increased probability of getting breast cancer now. I felt a small flash of anger. My mom had this wonderful character flaw of publicly saying the worst things at the worst possible moments. Did I really want to join the bald women club?
I told her point blank “I refuse to get breast cancer, mom. There are other things I will probably have to deal with, but that is not one of them” I think she gave me a dirty look, but I wasn’t sure. I went for a walk, I couldn’t deal with being in that room. Too depressing.
I talked with a friend of mine who told me to be gentle with myself. She said when her mother had cancer, she felt like she was in a fog. She was completely distraught. She said she got pulled over by the police for driving through a red stop sign without even noticing. She was so worried about her mom!
A couple days later, I was driving down the road and stopped at a red stop sign. I noticed the sign, so why was I not so distraught? I realized I was very ANGRY with my mother for having cancer! I thought, get a grip Michelle, why be mad at her for getting cancer? Its not like she wanted to have cancer! She was barely able to cope with having had a stroke the year prior.
But I was not the one dealing with cancer. My anger had to do with my own helpless feelings in the situation. I was angry her life was not turning out so great, and that she had so many challenges to overcome for one little person. This was the closest I had come to serious illness in my life, so this anger was about my mother’s mortality and being powerless to do anything about it.
I went with her to her first chemotherapy injection. She looked so small in the bed at the hospital. Hardly the crazy lady I had been afraid of in times past. As they hooked her to the innocent looking bag of poison that was supposed to help her save her life, I said a big prayer for her. She was as white as a sheet and looked very scared. I went for a walk while my mother rested, and was grateful for the inner work I had done in my life to forgive her for not being around when I was younger. For the previous seven years, I had done my best to forge a close adult relationship with her. I felt confident that I had done and said everything I needed to for our relationship to be as good as possible.
Synchronous timing on my walk, because I noticed a woman I had met seven years prior with her family at the hospital. She was bald as well in a white robe, being loved by her family. She registered me in the exact class that helped me get over that resentful space I held for mom. Sometimes life comes full circle in mysterious ways. I realized at that moment that illness can strike anywhere no matter who the person was. Its not like bad people get sick and good people are well, illness can hit anyone. And I decided to live my life more fully.
Mom took me to lunch a few weeks later for my birthday. It was one of the most real moments she and I ever spent. She said the nausea was awful but she thought she was going to get through it ok.
She told me how much she loved me and told me the much repeated story of how she unwrapped me from my blankets after I was born just so she could marvel at my tiny little pink body. She also told me how she had really loved my father and was so sorry she messed up their relationship. She also told me she was glad I grew up with him because she might have really messed me up. My mother was never this transparent, and I enjoyed the closeness we had that day.
She had just started losing her hair and was not feeling very strong. She said, “Look at this” She tugged on her long brown hair and it simply fell out in her hands. I bought her a hat which she wore for most of her treatment. Though I still felt uncomfortable around her, I was filled with a lot of love for her and what she was going through. We walked around for a while and she was tired so it was time for her to go home.
A couple months later, she stayed at my apartment for the weekend. Most of her hair had fallen out, but she still had patches of long brown strands hanging down her head. It really was one of the most ghoulish sights I had ever seen. She sat playing a video game in my kitchen right in front of the window, and I noticed horrified looks from my neighbors as they walked by. As much as she was out of it before, she was more out of it now. I knew she was tired and had no energy to snap at me. I kindly told her that she was scaring the neighbors and asked her to put a hat on. She simply chuckled and said, “I’m probably a shocking sight. Ok. Maybe you can cut these off for me?”
After that weekend, I didn’t hear from my mother much over the next six months. It seemed the pain from the chemotherapy got to her and she mentally checked out for a while. The doctor gave her steroids to help with her nausea and weight loss. She had always been a cute tiny thing, and she swelled up like a box. After chemo, she received radiation treatment that burned her skin. Then, when it was all over, she started having anxiety and depression that borderlined on suicidality. Whenever I talked to her, she was shaky and felt horrible.
My mother went from looking 45 years old to 70 years old in just a few short months. I felt just awful and helpless for what she had to go through. Going to see her was not an option because she felt so sick every day.
I did get to visit on a summer afternoon. My step father told me she was calling suicide prevention every day and making contracts to not kill herself. I told her it would mess me up if she ever did that to herself. And what would it do to her granddaughter? Why check out the fourth inning when the game lasts until the ninth? You never know, you still might end up winning the game. She promised to not do anything to hurt herself.
After she threatened to go play on the freeway, he took her to the hospital. The doctors found out that her salt levels were so dangerously low from the chemotherapy that she could have died. With the help of pharmaceuticals, she started to recover her thought processes and went into remission with the cancer. Because of the stroke, she was in physical therapy almost every day to learn how to take care of herself again. She seemed out of the woods, so to speak.
During this time in my life, answered the call of my own mortality. I took a couple years off relationships, and went to grad school to study counseling. I started deep emotional healing work and had a spiritual awakening. I took a fun new job and let my teen daughter stay with her father. It was a good time for me to branch out of my own small life and expand my horizons.
Around two years later, mom found out her cancer had returned. The doctor this time recommended a mastectomy. She could not get an implant because she had received radiation. The shock, anger and dismay I went through before didn’t touch me this time. I had already experienced that rite of passage, and the reckoning with my mother’s, and my own mortality.
I told mom I knew she was going to be ok and no matter what happened, I loved her. For the first time, I felt she really heard me. She said, “I love you too!”
It is now ten years since and she is still in remission. She still deals with the effects of her stroke. All of the other women in her cancer survivor’s group have since passed on. I am sure that is an isolating feeling to know you came that close to dying, but you were the lucky one. You were the statistic who made it.
Mom and I have still gone through times of difficulty, estrangement and reconciliation. I have still been hopping mad at her, and she has still said nutty things to me. But I am proud of my mother for continuing her healing work and becoming as healthy as she can. I have grown in ways I never expected nor wanted to, but needed to. I have learned to love her through my hurt, through my pain, through my feelings of rejection. So many times I did not understand WHY, all I could do was practice compassion.
Before the cancer, I had seen my mother as a stranger I did not and could not understand, a tiny pretty monster I was afraid of, a mommie dearest without the fame and fortune. I think her own brushes with death made her more human, more humble, more tired, so she had to figure a healthier way out of her own suffering. She became fragile and in that true fragility, her wounded pride started to melt away.
I don’t imagine that many women who deal with breast cancer deal with it well, even when we force a strong face to the world like my grandmother did. It’s a very difficult rite of passage for anyone involved.
Breasts are so much a part of our womanhood and the part of us that symbolizes our nurturing heart felt aspects. When we think about our own feminine aspects, are we being as open hearted as we can be to others? I ask myself, am I nurturing as a woman or am I not? Am I conditionally loving toward some and not to others? How do I love others who have hurt me so deeply? And lastly, can I be nurturing toward my own mother even after she has hurt me so deeply?
It must be a force of willpower with a touch of God’s divine grace to practice such unconditional love.
And mother is really the most mysterious relationship we have, since we came from nothing and grew in her uterus. That first relationship defines our life in ways we’d rather not admit nor care to know.
My mother spent my 46th birthday with me a couple weeks ago. I felt blessed to have her with me. I do believe we eventually get over the wounds of the past when we go through these brushes with death. Realizing we could lose those close to us, helps us transform and let go of those wounds, because all that really matters is today. We learn to cope with those character flaws our parents have and someday even override them into something cute about our parents who are now almost elderly.
Mom took me shopping and I found a sweatshirt I particularly like. She liked it so much, she wanted to get the same one. At one point in my life, I would have been so irritated with her for picking the one thing I had chosen for myself. I had prided myself on being the antithesis of her, and the same sweatshirt would have been something similar.
But suddenly this day, I was faced with my own personal growth, healing and a touch of maturity when it came to my mother. It seemed such a silly thing to be mad at her for having the same taste as me. I said, “We can wear them and walk down the street being twins”. It was a sweet moment to see the happiness on her face, such a rare thing from my younger years. When she tried it on and said “It doesn’t work. Its too tight. I wear things that are much looser”, I said, “You look so great in that. Its meant to be fitted. Besides, who says you can’t still be sexy when you are 64?”
64. She’s lived to be 64. After two issues of breast cancer and a major stroke. And she turned out a rather nice lady in spite of everything she went through. Cherish it, Michelle. Its not going to last forever.
There is a ticking clock that pushes each one of us toward death each day. Cherish the good, the bad, the ugly while you can, because someday it will be gone.
All I have to offer anyone in this crazy path we call life, is do your best to live life in the present time. We all have hurts, regrets and resentments from the past. We may need to take some time sorting them out, but do try to look newly at those people who brought you into this lifetime. People change through time and we often miss it because we are so intent at relating to them through the lens of the past.
What if its possible to be open to them, but completely unable to be hurt by them? So only then can we unconditionally love them. Is it possible? It’s possible. Is it sure thing? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.