Five years to the week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother was diagnosed. She had known about the lump in her breast for a while, but my brother was going through some difficult health issues at the time, so she put off her own.
Either that or she suspected what it was and didn’t want to know.
My mom was 72 when they found the mass, and mass it was. Measuring the size of an egg, it hadn’t shown up on the mammography she had received because it was against the chest wall. Mammography is supposed to find these masses too, but… I don’t know why they missed it. She got her mammograms at a military hospital as my dad was retired Navy.
But no matter whether it was on the mammogram, she could feel it, and she should have told them to stick a biopsy needle in it way before she told me about it. Of course, I scolded her. I was doing cancer 24/7 by then, speaking and educating women about breast cancer, but my mom ignored her own.
She just apologized and said she didn’t think it was anything. I made an appointment with my surgeon, and she immediately scheduled her for a biopsy. My sister and I accompanied her to the day surgery and, knowing it was going to take a while, went to lunch.
My sister, not having done the cancer march, was sure it was nothing. I think there is a sense of protection when one person in the family gets cancer. The others think, “Well, my family has done their part, and now I don’t have to worry.” Wrong.
When we returned to the surgery center, I knew the good signs and the bad. When we walked around the corner, all the recliners were filled with people recovering from other biopsies. Mom was not there. I froze. That meant she was in one of the cubbies, small private rooms where bad news allows some privacy.
My sister thought it was sweet that she got a room and everyone else was out in the big area. When we walked into the space where mom was recovering, my surgeon was with her, and mom was crying. I stood for a second, and it was like her life and death flashed before me.
When she apologized for not taking the lump more seriously, I knew it was malignant.
My surgeon said she would have the full pathology back in a week, so we took mom home and began planning. My mother called me the executive director of her cancer.
The first step was to move my dad, suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s disease, to my sister’s house until we could find a good nursing home. He needed the kind of care that she, with three little ones, could not provide for very long.
Then we met with my surgeon, who gave us the whole story. Mom’s cancer was already in her lungs, the reason she had been so winded lately. Mom was hardly listening, knowing that I would translate everything that was being said later.
What the news told me was that my mother was dying. It was 1991, and we didn’t have any of the life-prolonging drugs now available. I also knew that caring for my father had taken its toll on her, and I questioned her desire to live.
Three rounds of chemotherapy didn’t help, and, if anything, hastened her demise. Her immune system was wiped out and the cancer galloped. She was diagnosed in November and by March,1992, it was clear to me she didn’t have long to live. It was also time for us to have a conversation about what she wanted.