Twenty years ago today, I was a little girl who had just been on her first major road trip.
My uncles, some family friends, my sister, and I had driven the 20+ hours from Phoenix to Houston. I had no idea what to expect. I was so conflicted because in my mind, Houston, Texas looked like a city from an old western movie. Yet I knew Mom was there at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is the best cancer treatment center in the world. I had such a hard time picturing this big fancy hospital in the middle of a town made of wood buildings and dirt roads with horses.
Turns out Houston was a lot like Phoenix only GREEN. I’d never seen so many green plants and rainstorms in my young life. And MD Anderson was mind-numbingly huge and complex.
And my mother, well she was a pumpkin.
That was my first thought anyway. When she had left Phoenix she’d had SOME hair left. Now she was completely bald and the medicines they’d given her had made her swell up a fair bit and turn orange. Clearly, my mother was a pumpkin.
She was in an isolation room. I could see her through double-paned glass and talk to her via intercom. I couldn’t hug her or touch her. No one could. The doctors administered drugs to her through long plastic gloves built into the opposite wall and once a week a person in a bubble suit could come through the air lock to clean her room. Everything that came in had to be sterilized.
After 3 days of radiation treatments, where she received the same amount of radiation that you would have at Hiroshima when the bomb went off, Mom had no immune system left. The littlest bug could kill her in a few hours.
I remember watching the day of the transplant. We were all gathered around the window. Momma was SO so excited. She held the catheter line up for us to see as they pushed in 3 BIG fat syringes of bone marrow in through the tubes that came through the wall. She gave us a big cheesy grin and a thumbs up!
Afterwards, we went to check on my Uncle Mike (one of my mother’s younger brothers) who was her bone marrow donor. He had 6 little round needle holes in his butt. 3 of them on each cheek. He told Mom that now he can really say that she was a pain in the ass. (In fact until Mikey passed away 2 years ago, Momma would call him every year and thank him for saving her life. And every year he would say “I love ya sis. You’re welcome but you’re still a pain in the ass” )
That was 20 years ago.
I still bawl like a baby every time I really think about it. I have no words to express how amazingly grateful I am to God, to science, to the doctors and nurses and to my Mother for being a fighter and going to hell and back so that I could grow up with my Mommy. I would not be a live today if it wasn’t for her.
In so many ways, I owe who I am to my amazing mother. You couldn’t ask for a more loving, accepting, caring and compassionate person. Don’t get me wrong – she’ll kick your butt up between your ears if you really need it, but only because she loves you. I think she has done a SUPERB job of balancing being a mother and being a friend, and that’s not an easy line to walk.
For better or for worse, hers is the voice in my head. I found that out when I went to college. She’s the one I hear encouraging me, chastising me, reminding me and helping me.
She hasn’t always been perfect but I can say this: Whenever it has been pointed out to her that something she has said or done was not right or hurtful, she never, EVER did it again.
As a kid, shortly after the transplant, I presented a picture to her transplant physician, Dr. Anderson (who just happens to share a last name with the hospital). It said in big crayon letters “Thank you for saving my Mommy’s life”.
I want to say it again. Preferably through a mega phone from the top of a tall building, on the 6 o’clock news and on the front page of every paper in the world, but I’ll do it here:
Thank you to every one involved in making it happen. Thank so much for saving my Mommy.
Twenty years, baby. Here’s to 20 more and many, many more after that!
I think this post is going to be one of many. There are things I am remembering that I haven’t thought about for years. I read the intro to Band Back Together and I felt my chest get tight and tears start to form. Just the premise – a place to share, fully, completely and be safe. Maybe it could help somebody else. Maybe it will only help me. But either way I think some of these demons aren’t as dead as I thought so we’re going to start try to pull them all kicking and screaming into the sunlight. I’ll submit them at the Band but they’ll all be posted here for sure.
Some background before we begin- My Mother has had cancer 3 times. Starting with Leukemia when I was 8, Melanoma when I was 15 and Mucal Epidermoid Carcinoma, stage 2, when I was 20. My Father also had Lung Cancer (Non-small cell carcinoma, stage 1) when I was 22.
These are my stories.
It was spring. I was 8 years old. Mom found a couple lumps on her neck but we’d been digging in the yard the day before at the new house so she dismissed them as some sort of bug bites….
My parent’s didn’t want to uproot me this close to the end of the school year and so I would get driven to school every morning and then I would walk back to Grandma’s house with my cousin Josh and hang out there until Mom or Dad could pick me up after work.
One day Dad came to get me, I can’t even remember if it was early or late now but I remember it was out of the normal time he usually came. We had to go to the hospital. Momma had “collapsed” at work.
What I found out later was that what actually happened was that my Mom had been walking down the hall way at work (she is an RN) talking to some coworkers and had passed out. She’d shrugged it off as hypoglycemia getting the better of her. But then a few hours later while bending over a patient it happened again. This time they insisted on taking her down to the ER for tests.
We sat for 3 hours waiting on a single blood test. Turns out they tested it on 3 different machines and the results were so off they decided the machines must be broken so they called in a specialist to count it by hand.
I don’t remember what the exact white cell count was. But I remember it was SO massively off what it should have been. Lots of extra zeros. I knew that was bad but at 8 years old I didn’t know much else.
The next day, my Aunt Lois came to stay with us. I really liked Lois, even if I wasn’t so fond of her cooking at the time (she’s my organic aunt). Mom and Dad were just going to go get one test done and see a doctor and then they’d be home.
Momma never came home to that house. In fact she didn’t come home again for nearly a year….
It was me, my little sister, Beth and my cousin Kaydee sitting in the living room floor watching Bambi of all the horribly perverse things when the call came. I remember Lois looking pale and repeating like she couldn’t believe it: “She’s got cancer??”
All I knew about cancer at that time was the week before I’d watched one of those stupid hallmark specials designed to make you bawl your frigging eyes out; the lady had died of cancer because she’d refused treatment so she could deliver a healthy baby.
I turned back to look at the TV in time to catch Bambi wandering alone in the snow asking “Mother? Mother?”
I swear to God I am NOT making that up. I jumped up and shut that TV off as fast as I was capable of. I couldn’t watch Bambi with out FREAKING OUT for 10 years afterward…. I still don’t like that stupid film….
Lois explained that Mommy wasn’t coming home that night. They were admitting her to the hospital straight away to start treatment. My Mother had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). They even initially misdiagnosed her with another form of Leukemia, maybe it was wishful thinking b/c ALL in adults is bad. Like, usually they have enough time to diagnose you, admit you and then you die, levels of bad. Its more commonly found in children where it takes a much less aggressive course than it does in adults.
In a lot of ways, I look back now and realize my childhood ended in that living room that day. I have a lot more to share. And I will but I can’t right now. Maybe tomorrow….
I am the child of a cancer survivor and this is my story.
nugget daddy and her grandmamie brought nugget to my hospital room to get ready for trick-or-treating. she was, of course, beyond adorable in her tinker bell dress and wings, sparkly green tinker bell shoes, tinker bell wand, and ballet pink tights. i pulled her tiny tresses up into the best tink-like puff i could manage, fluffed it up with plenty of hairspray and added a clip with tiny white flowers. she politely shrieked, “dada! dada!” and beamed with pride as she was showered in nugget daddy’s hair product. what, you didn’t think it was mine, did you?
then we selected where she wanted her green star stamps placed and where best the pink star stamps were suited for. earlier, i ‘d done a sample patch of each color on each of my cheeks so she could see how they both looked.
then we applied a very liberal dusting of pixie dust. i should have gotten her some “pixie dust” glitter of her own to keep in her “berry bucket” for dousing unsuspecting passers-by. ah well, there’s always next year!
we made a few rounds though the halls to the different nurses’ stations. nugget was heartbreakingly cute and insisted on holding my hand, always unsure of how to navigate around all the wires attached to her mama. i told her it was almost time to go to the mall for more trick-or-treating and that her grandmamie would be getting her the tinker bell movie while they were there.
we said our goodbyes and i swear, i just couldn’t get enough hugs or kisses from my sweet baby girl. i watched as they made their way down the hall, all the while nugget was cheerfully waving goodbye, happy as a clam, all pixied-up and ready for more candy collecting.
i stepped back into my room just as the tears started rolling down my face. i tried to sob silently for my own selfish sadness.
i hoped she was having the time of her life, holding out her fat little felt flower bag – surely that’s what fairies collect halloween candy in – and squealing with delight with the acquisition of each new piece of candy. she had oh-so-politely signed “thank you” for each treat she’d collected from the nurses and i hoped that trend was continuing at the mall. i’m so very proud of my little tinklet.
i hope i can get out of here this weekend in time for the good post-pumpkin day costume sales at the disney store and old navy. otherwise, i might have to send someone armed with a fully charged cell phone and a whole lot of patience on my behalf!
Have you ever been swimming in the ocean and wondered what was lurking underneath you…eying your body…sizing you up to see if you would make a tasty meal? That’s what I call the breast cancer “shark attack syndrome.”
I liken the physical and psychological impact of a double mastectomy to a shark attack. It happens quickly and violently. In a matter of minutes you are struck hard and parts of your body are carried away into a vast ocean by a predator much bigger than you. It isn’t personal. The attack is random. You are left alive but amputated–stunned and with a life long fear of the water.
People who know about my diagnosis gawked at my chest like an accident scene on the freeway. Family, friends…they can’t help themselves from looking. I chose not to have reconstruction due to the lengthy recovery…an infant and a toddler don’t lend themselves to extensive plastic surgery. My daughter was 8 months old and my son was 3 years when I had the surgery, not exactly the age where I could be out of commission.
I don’t wear the prosthetics I bought…they constantly remind me I am amputated, and the first time I took yoga one of them fell out! My beloved yoga teacher said, “Just take them out, honey.” I never looked back.
The journey through a breast cancer diagnosis with two small children was so very hard. I searched for the words to tell my son…
”The Doctor found a lump in mommy’s breast that isn’t good for her body and he has to take it out.”
Thanks to my son’s school and my amazing husband, we got him through it…but he STILL talks about it and recently asked, “Mommy, why don’t you have boobies?” At that point I realized my beautiful daughter would grow up never knowing her mother’s body to look “normal.” She only knows the scars. That is the day my heart broke forever. As if depression didn’t make me feel inadequate enough, now I felt like a carnie act. Come on down and meet the lady who was attacked by sharks!
I will never truly recover from knowing what I look like and what I represent to my children. But I am here to be their mom and truly thankful. Thank god I had it checked. The mammogram showed no abnormalities! If I had just had the mammogram I would have faced a diagnosis of invasive cancer and perhaps required chemotherapy or radiation. As of now, they tell me I am “cured.”
And I found it myself.
Not a minute in the day goes by that I don’t worry that it will return and take me from my children. Every woman who has had breast cancer knows exactly what I’m talking about. Every cold, every headache, every stiff muscle, still scares me into thinking I am still out there in that ocean—defenseless to another shark attack. What part of my body will they take next time?
I saw my mother lose her breast early in life. The same month I was diagnosed, she was diagnosed with Stage IV colo-rectal cancer. I watched the sharks circle her for six years, taking feet of colon, and eventually her life.
But it isn’t a pity party. I am glad I got cancer. It was a hell of a lot easier to deal with than postpartum depression, than life-long depression, than the cancer that is depression. And it got me immediately in touch with impermanence, and subsequently, my spiritual practice.
If I were thrown back into the dark ocean again and a recurrence reared it’s ugly head, I have my faith to thank for curing me of my fear of sharks.
Maybe a favorite piece of jewelry? Time? A friend?
My mother-in-law lost her battle with cancer just a few weeks short of my second wedding anniversary. She was an amazing woman. And I’m not just saying that. Everybody adored her. When you think of the ideal mom, that was her. She had a ton of friends that sang her praises. She volunteered with the American Cancer Society to drive elderly people that couldn’t drive to medical appointments and to run errands. She would do anything for anybody. Thoughtful, warm, beautiful smile.
Clearly, she was not a likely candidate for cancer!
Clearly God wouldn’t tear an angel from our hearts!
Religion doesn’t play a huge role in my life. It is important to me, and I pray and thank God every night for our blessings. My mom’s best friend, a practicing Christian and strong believer, once told me, “God doesn’t care where you worship him as long as you worship him.”
So I prayed. I prayed that she would get better. I prayed that chemotherapy and radiation would work. I prayed the homeopathic treatments that she tried would work. I prayed for a miracle. I tried to bargain with God. If he let her live, I would never do X, Y, or Z again. If he let her live, I’d be a better person.
A few months before she passed, it was clear she wasn’t getting better. And that’s when I started to get mad. Why would God take someone so loved by so many? Someone that had not even met her son’s children yet? But I continued to pray.
Up until the night we got the call that she had passed away. We had been over to see her earlier that day, and knew that she was getting worse. We knew what was coming. We got to say that we loved her, and spoke to her privately. When we got the call that she was gone, I was shocked that she had actually died. I expected my miracle.
And I was pissed. Pissed off at God. All those prayers? They meant nothing. Why would he take someone that was so loved by so many people? There are thousands of murderers, rapists, and child molesters that deserve death – why not take one of them?
WHY, WHY, WHY?
The prayers stopped. I ignored him when I heard him trying to “talk” to me. Religion? Obviously a joke. Why believe in HIM if he can’t even help when you asked for it. There was no lesson to be learned. No epiphany to wait for. There was just sorrow and grief.
IT WAS NOT FAIR.
Does time really heal all wounds? I think it does. Because ever so slowly, over that first year after her death, I started to listen to him again. And I started to pray…occasionally. And when I invited him back into my life because I missed him, he gladly accepted me with open arms.
I still haven’t figured out the “why,” and I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn from her death.
oh, how i miss the simplicity of our nursing days. life without breastfeeding is hard, and cancer certainly isn’t making it any easier. crying was limited to brief moments following boo-boos and over-tired minutes post car seat strap-ins. it was never part of naptime or bedtime.
a balanced diet was effortless.
i never knew the struggle of naptime. now i have to walk and rock nugget in my arms or in a peanut shell while she chews on a pacifier, maybe holds her blanket and always twiddles at least one nipple. at night we lather, rinse, repeat or if i’m really lucky we just lay down and she holds on to each boob, binky clenched between her teeth and drifts off, dreaming of nursing i imagine.
i never knew a picky toddler.
whenever nugget was hungry or thirsty the milk bar was always open. trying new and different foods was fun instead of stressful. nugget’s tummy was never upset. her favorite snack was always handy. we never had to pack a meal to go out.
i did at least have a few weeks and the foresight to work in the concept of “kisses make boo boos all better.” nugget still kisses my port and scars everyday. recently she’s added my breasts to her fix-it list and kisses and hugs them all day long.
she’s trying her best to make mommy all better with her kisses, because she knows that’s when she can have her nursies back.