Breast cancer tried to take down my mom, and I learned a few things about my own life through her diagnosis and treatment.
When I found out mom had cancer, we were in northern Guatemala. My spouse and I couldn’t immediately get to a phone when my sister sent me a message on Facebook to call home. Even without calling, I knew something was wrong. Thankfully, mom had treatment options for the kind of tumor growing inside her.
When I was finally able to call home, mom asked what I would do if it were me. To lose a breast is no small matter for any woman. I can’t really imagine myself in that position, but I tried. Her choices were to lose a breast, and know the tumor was removed, or, roll the dice with a lumpectomy and radiation, and hope those treatments would be enough to beat the game and buy more time for cancer-free life.
After much consideration, mom decided to have a total mastectomy. I set out for home on Long Island two days before the surgery. I packed hope and faith, and was ready to help.
Cancer killed my mother’s mother. Grandma Margaret died from pancreatic cancer when she was just 57 years old. She didn’t have any treatment options. Instead, she was given a guess on the length of time she would have left on earth.
Some of my first memories were with Grandma Margaret. She taught me how to tie my shoes. We had heart-to-heart talks on the serious matters facing a three-year-old. I remember my questions and her answers. Why can’t I pick my nose? Why do you like to read me stories? Why does mommy want another baby? Why does daddy work so much? Why don’t you live with us? I love you, Grandma.
Sometimes I sensed a level of sadness about Grandma Margaret. She’d smile and help me and play with me and answer my questions. But sometimes she would drift off and get a ‘far away’ look that today, looking back, I’ll label as severe melancholy.
I don’t want to be melancholy. I want a life full of love and kindness and laughter, oh god, more of it all, please! These wonderful things that make me really enjoy life, that bring me pure joy, if I let them.
I’ve often wondered about my grandmother’s mental health and state of happiness. Did she truly enjoy her life? Was she happy? Fulfilled? Did she love life so much that when she got the diagnosis for impending death, did she say, ‘OK, I can accept that – I have had a great life’? Or, did she throw a fit and throw things against the wall? Or, did she simply get that far away look? Maybe it was a combination – or none of the above. I’ll never know how she felt when she learned she would die.
Over the years I’ve asked other family members about Grandma Margaret’s state of mind – the state of her happiness. I don’t feel she loved life as much as she could have.
That makes me sad for her, and I believe it played some kind of role in my psyche when I would make a decision decades later between two choices: live life how I really want to live it and wear authentic huge smiles, or give in and settle and wear that far away look.
For years, I gave in and settled. I wore that melancholy look. I was depressed over how things had gone for me. Not enough material success, not enough prestige – after all – don’t you know who I am?
When my life wasn’t working out how I wanted it to work out, I became resentful. And it was like a cancer that grew all over my soul.
Eventually, I discovered I could give my petty trials and challenges to the Spirit of the Universe, and not worry. I practiced letting it all go to God, and I found out when I do, I always gain more than I ever knew was possible to receive. Ironically, that’s when my monetary and career successes increased. And that was followed by even more irony: the realization none of that crap matters in the least. Today happens to be the one-year anniversary of my unemployment.
After my layoff last year, I spent a lot of time with a woman who was in denial over her terminal cancer diagnosis. Virginia was resentful over her impending death. ‘How could life be over already?’ her eyes asked. ‘How can this be all there is?’ she said without saying.
Eventually Virginia accepted her fate, and I pray she found peace in God’s will, which none of us can ever really know or understand.
Maybe it’s just this: our experiences with each other are all that really matter. Winners have the most love and kindness and laughter. And maybe it’s God’s will for us to figure that out on our own. If the answer to the riddle of life is that simple, we’d all enjoy each other more, wouldn’t we? Seems like a good answer to me.
And it seems mom made a good decision. The pathology report from her mastectomy showed there was a second cancerous tumor in her breast tissue that previous testing missed. That’s right – a second, unknown tumor. Thankfully, it’s gone, and mom’s recovery is going as well as possible. I’m back with my spouse and we’re in Mexico for the next few months. This is where I want to be, after dutifully helping my parents.
If Grandma Margaret planted the seed of how to live the life I really want, and then a spiritual experience and Virginia’s death sprouted that seed when it was ready to grow, I see my mom’s breast cancer experience as an affirmation from the Universe to me: every day counts; live how you want to live, with more love and kindness and laughter.
Note: in a twist of ironic karmic fate, I was diagnosed with breast cancer while traveling in Europe two years after this post. I had a double mastectomy, without reconstruction, and kept traveling.