In one of the most far-reaching and visible public awareness campaigns held each October, fundraising events, dietary recommendations, public service announcements, survival stories, and health statistics raise our consciousness about breast cancer.
My first awareness of breast cancer occurred nearly 50 years ago – in the fall of 1963. The incident began with me walking up the stairs in my home. I was looking for my mother because I had something urgent to tell her. I no longer remember what was so important. I heard my mother whispering on the telephone… and she was sobbing as she spoke with my Aunt Ozie, a nursing assistant and the family’s medical expert.
Running into her bedroom, frightened, I asked, “What’s wrong?” Sniffing, my mother said that she was okay; then she told me to go back down stairs. Clearly, she was not telling the truth. Now, I was really scared! Soon after, my mother pulled my twin and I into her arms. She told us about a lump in her breast; she let us feel it – hard, rough and round.
This was the start of my mourning. The diagnosis was another traumatic event, second only to the unexpected death of my father before I was age 2. We believed that a cancer diagnosis meant certain death. My mother made arrangements for her burial place, taught her daughters how to do a breast self - examination, and lived as if each day were more precious than the day before.
Over the next 25 years, my mother would have a double mastectomy, undergo extensive chemotherapy treatments with many side effects – including hair loss, memory impairment, severe weight loss, and lymph edema. There would be periods of remission, years when the family almost forgot the lurking “Big “C.”
In 1975, a new diagnosis was made – bone metastases; but the 1-3 year prognosis was wrong. On at least three occasions, my mother was declared “near death” and the family was advised to “start making arrangements”. Over and over, the doctors declared a “miraculous recovery”. I became convinced that my mother would be forever victorious over this enemy.
By 1988, a compromised immune system contributed to anemia, lymphoma, heart palpitations and pneumonia as the malignancy spread. My mother had experienced 11 death-defying years of abundant living years - finding a loving partner, spoiling three grandchildren, celebrating family reunions, and teaching life lessons.
Breast cancer is a family matter. We carry the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genetic markers. Breast cancer has made no distinction among genders. Many, but not all, have survived.
My mother announced that she was coming and then walked through the gates of heaven. Seriously.
· On a Tuesday my mother, she insisted on walking. Despite warning by the nurse providing home hospice care, my twin and I obediently helped my mother to stand, supporting her on each side. After a painstaking effort and just two steps, she allowed us to gently lower her into the wheel chair that was placed near-by.
· On Wednesday, she called “home” (South Carolina) and told the family that she would not be here long. If they wanted to see her, they needed to come “now.” They came.
· On Thursday, she stopped eating.
· On Friday, she stopped talking - except when she twice looked heavenward and said two words, “Hold On.”
· On Saturday, family filled the house. Folks had come from Michigan, South Carolina, Maryland and across D.C. We watched TV, played the piano, ate fried chicken, potato salad and biscuits, and we talked – children, grandchildren, brother, nieces, nephews, beloved friend and nurse.
Near day’s end, my twin and I asked everyone else to leave the bedroom so that we could have “alone time”. Blessed to have this opportunity, we talked about family love and gratitude. Then, the here-to-fore listless body rose up one last time as she said “Hold On.”
Lowering back down to the bed, my mother gazed deeply into our eyes. My twin and I talked about my mother’s three cherished grandchildren. They knew that she was very sick; they knew how much she loved them. We knew how much their births had been life giving to her.
Finally, the three of us (her words inaudible) recited Psalm 23 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… thou art with me… surely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I shall dwell….” My twin and I kissed her, one on each cheek. We went down the stairs to welcome more visiting family members, just for 10 – 15 minutes. When I returned, that quickly, my mother had slipped into unconsciousness.
· On Sunday morning, I awoke at the foot of her bed to see my mother peacefully sleeping with a smile on her face, breathless.
Breast cancer, in many instances, is not an imminent death sentence. Rates of remission and survival are so much greater than forty - eight years ago. While only one person receives the chemotherapy treatments, family members are not shielded. We walk with and for our loved one on the battle trail.
My family’s experiences with my mother’s cancer struggle, survival, and release are an intergenerational, everlasting gift: an appreciation of phenomenal lives, sustaining roots, and enduring wings.