I remember when I got the call.
I was sitting in my college apartment watching TV with my roommate and the phone rang. I saw that my mother was calling and figured that she was just checking in since we hadn’t talked in a week or so. I could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong, so I went into my bedroom and shut the door.
“A little while ago, I found a lump in my breast. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry,” she said. “I went to the doctor, and after a couple of scans, they decided to do a biopsy. I just got the results back today–it’s cancerous.” As she finished, I could hear in her voice that she was trying so hard to remain composed and strong, but that she was on the brink of tears and scared out of her mind.
“What’s the next step?” I asked, pushing the lump down in my throat.
“Well,” she said, “My doctor is nothing short of fantastic and scheduled me to have my surgery as soon as possible, so I’m going in to have it removed in a week and a half. At that point, they’ll be able to see if it spread and how far, but we caught it very early and they’re confident that it’s contained.”
“What about chemo or radiation?” I asked.
“That will all depend on what they find during surgery,” she said. “If nothing spread, then I should be able to get away without a very invasive treatment process afterwards, and right now, that’s what I’m hoping for. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, though.”
I sat on pins and needles the next 10 days, and after her surgery, I was the first person she called once she got home and was comfortable. Without mincing words, I asked the big question, “What did the doctors find?”
Her pause before she replied let me know that her hopes and prayers had hit a snag, so to speak. “They removed the lump without incident, but they found that it had spread into the lymph nodes under my arm, so they scooped them out as well. I’m a little sore, but I’m ok.” I could tell there was still more to be said, though.
“What that means for me,” she continued, “Is that I will have to undergo full chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in addition to injections for the next year. Since the cancer spread to the lymph nodes, they have to be a little more aggressive to be sure that it won’t pop up somewhere else. I’ll start chemo almost immediately, and everything that goes with that will happen.” She began to trail off a bit. “I’ll lose my hair…”
At that point, despite all that she had done to stay strong, she couldn’t bear it anymore and began to cry. Through her tears, though, she began to laugh slightly. “Stupid, huh?” she said. “After everything I’ve been through, I talk about my hair and that’s what gets to me.”
We talked for about another hour, with me trading questions for answers, finding out everything that I could do to help her through this. In the end, though, I felt truly helpless and I was scared for her. Not about the cancer anymore, but that the treatment would drain her of the wonderful vitality she graced everyone with. Even though I hadn’t been exposed to many people going through the treatment, I had heard the stories. It wasn’t a pretty process.
The following month, I was graduating from college and my family came up to celebrate. It was the first time I had seen my mom in person since her surgery and the news that followed, and she gave me a big hug–that type of hug that you get from someone who doesn’t want you to see their eyes and how scared they are. That type of hug that holds on for a while so when you back away, you both have had time to look alright again. Well, we both backed away and looked a mess, and we laughed at each other. We’ve always had that special connection where we know exactly what the other is thinking, and we were both holding on to that hug so that the other wouldn’t have to see us cry.
As we regained our composure, I looked at her and said, “This is how it’s going to be. There will be tears, sure, but we’re going to laugh through this.”
She looked at me, ran her hand through my very short hair, and said, “If people think we look alike now, they won’t believe it when my hair is as short as yours is.” With that, we both laughed, I gave her another hug, and we all got in the car to go out to dinner.
For the next few months, we supported her as she went through treatment. Advances in anti-nausea medications, among others, ensured that her chemotherapy went incredibly smooth. She never got sick–not once. In fact, she said that the worst part of the entire treatment process were the small tattoos (no bigger than a freckle) that she had to get so that the radiologist could align the beams correctly every time without having to draw them again.
That first phone call was almost five years ago now, and I’m happy to say that I can still crack jokes and laugh with my mother, who has been out of cancer treatment and in remission since 2008.
Every year, there are nearly a quarter of a million more stories like this one, and unfortunately, ten percent of those stories don’t have as happy an ending. As medical science advances, we can only hope that those numbers begin to dwindle and eventually disappear so that more people can continue to laugh with the ones they love.
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