It was not 14 years ago this month, but since it is breast cancer awareness month, and people are posting their stories going through their experiences, I thought I would share mine. While I have shared the story with so many people and I have written it down privately, I felt I could share it here. This is from what I can remember. Everyone else has their own experiences, this is mine.
14 years. 14 years since I remember my mom going through those tests and hearing the words “cancer.” I feel like I lived in a somewhat sheltered, low worrisome life since before that year I had not been touched by the close death of a family member or friend. I had friends who had gone through it, but nothing that with which I could sympathize.
It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2000, and I was working at Kmart with my good friend in Ventura, CA. I knew my mom was going through some testing, possibly cancer. I did not know anything about breast cancer and knew nothing of what to expect. I was 20 at the time, the oldest of 3. My brother was 18 at my sister was 13. The past seven years of our lives revolved around my mom going to law school and then taking the bar exam. My mom is my hero. There is no other person who is stronger or amazing than her. In 1992, with 3 kids, a husband, a house, and all the responsibilities that come with all of that, she went back to school. In 1994, she started law school and in 1998, she graduated first in her class. FIRST IN HER CLASS. Amazing. Then came another two years of
studying and taking the California bar exam. It took four tries but she finally passed and we got word in June 2000. She started her own law practice and also helped teach at the law school. It was almost six months we got to truly enjoy all of her success, and what we felt ours as well, since we lived through it with her.
I still remember sitting in the camera room, nervous as can be, waiting for the phone call. My parents had just gone to another appointment to learn about the test results and get an actual diagnosis. My friend, and boss at the time, was sitting with me, both of us trying to work. I got the call from my dad and he told me that it was confirmed. Breast cancer. My heart sunk. I did not know what to expect. I was scared that my mom was going to die tomorrow. I still remember my friend telling me to go home. I wanted to stay and work. I didn’t know what to do. My friend told me “Noah, if you don’t go home right now, I am going to kick your ass. Go home.” Seemed even more incentive to leave, so I did.
It seemed like such a blur. I talked to a friend who tried to reassure me that everything would be okay, that her grandmother had a lumpectomy and she was fine. I talked to another friend and she tried to reassure me as well. I started to find out then, that people really just don’t know what to say. They don’t understand how to help you. In fact, in your moments where you feel the weakest, you have to be strong for them. Even if you don’t want to or feel like you can. In the weeks that followed there were dinners and discussions and more and more appointments.
My mom was of the course the strongest of us all. She was our leader. As my dad puts it she is the “cruise director.” We had followed her for the past 7 years. We were prepared to follow her again. I also found inner strength in myself, but I found even more strength in my dad. People ask today how I can get through tough situations, fight through things. I point to my mom first…but #1a is my dad. I can’t explain how strong he is, and today I would not be the person I am without following his lead. Not only in our family but anything. How he deals with people or any situation, I find myself looking towards what he would do.
People put a knock on county healthcare, that it may be less than adequate and the people who go there are only the poor. From what I remember, she went to a private hospital and in her words there was a “feeling of death.” When she went to the county hospital she felt more “hope.” The county hospital where we lived in California was connected to the UCLA healthcare system and her oncologist preferred to practice and teach through there because he would work with the patients his way. The doctors and nurses there would become part of our family and even today know us by name and always give a big hug.
Then the phone calls started. We had to tell people, at least the close members of the family. My mom called my grandmother (her mother), and my dad called my paternal grandparents as well as his sister. My mom asked me to call my grandfather (her father) and let him know. I was 20, and I was going to call my grandfather and tell him that my mom, his daughter, had cancer and we did not know exactly what the plan was going forward. To say I was nervous is an understatement. Scared as shit was what it was. I could hear the fear in his voice, the feeling of now knowing if she was going to die. I told him I loved him, and in only one of the few times I can ever recall he said “I love you, too son.” This old man, one of the smartest men I knew, was just as scared as I was.
Just before New Year 2001, my mom started radiation. In Spring 2001 she had chemotherapy, and then surgery. The plan was to shrink the tumor and see how it reacted and then cut it out. One day, I was sitting in her bedroom with her as she was getting ready for work, and we were talking about what was going on. I was asking a lot of questions and wondering how she felt about everything. I remember feeling the tumor, about the size of a softball, and thinking how weird it was that this was going to be removed from her. Yes, it was weird that I was feeling my mom’s breast…but that was my parents, they were always honest with us about everything. They did not hide what was going on with my mom’s treatments. Why hide anything, why make it a scary thing? Yes, be scared, but keep focusing forward.
The surgery was rough. I remember my dad being alone at the hospital and my friend and I drove over in the morning after going to the gym. My dad is pretty realistic and independent. While being a big old softy as well he told us he was fine and there was nothing we could do, so he would call. I think we brought him food or coffee and conversed with him before he told us to go hang out and he would call us. Texting was still in the baby phase at this point.
Following surgery my mom had the whole recovery period. She was frustrated and upset and pissed off. Men cannot relate to having a breast removed. Sure, we all love breasts and women and appreciate them. Watching my mom going through the mental anguish of losing this piece of herself, something which so identifies her as s woman made me realize how much more mental this was than physical. Following the surgery came the recovery and that took up most of the rest of the year. Through the whole situation, she continued to work on her practice and teaching.