I didn’t know the specifics of the disease, only that I had an ominous feeling about it.
The topic was briefly discussed in my biology class during my high school days: the cells in the body suddenly have a mind of their own, reproducing at an alarmingly fast rate without the body’s permission, from a faulty gene in the body. Perhaps I possessed a certain degree of naiveté that led me to think that I was untouchable, that this disease would not be able to touch us. My parents were health-conscious, and I never knew a close relative that had it in any form. Then, July of this year, my mom said the most harrowing word I’d ever heard from her in my life: cancer.
I never knew how my mother found the strength to deliver the devastating news so casually. Maybe because she had been working in the medical field for so long, such occurrences had become ordinary. But I was and am not my mother. My knees shake at the sight of blood. I do not have a high tolerance for pain. Yet at that moment, no amount of heartbreak or physical pain could compare to what I felt upon learning that my mother was battling breast cancer. I truly think any woman who battles this kind of cancer feels a little betrayed: the very thing that gives sustenance to a new life would be the death of you. As if being a woman isn’t hard enough.
In my family, I took the news the hardest. I shut myself from the world and refused to talk about the disease. I thought that if I didn’t recognize it, it wouldn’t exist. For months, I couldn’t even mention the word for fear that by doing so, the situation would feel all too real. Before my mother contracted the disease, I didn’t know very much about breast cancer. I was torn between wanting to know more because I wanted to be informed, and not wanting to, because I wasn’t sure if I could handle the truth.
The first time it truly hit me that my mother had cancer was during her first visit to the oncologist. At the time, we were in the waiting area along with the other patients. Every one of them looked the same, with their heads wrapped with either a cap or a scarf. All of them had lost an integral part of their womanhood. I was looking at their faces but all I could see was that of my mother’s.
My good memory was something I was thankful for back when I was a student. Now I feel like it’s become a curse because of my ability to remember things in detail: what she smelled like, what hospital gown she wore; when she was wheeled into the operating room and I could see the effects the sedatives had on her; when she was finally in the recovery room with her blank eyes, uttering words she wouldn’t even remember once she was “recovered.” I could remember the way the big needle pricked into her skin. I remember all the tests she would undergo just to make sure her platelets remained in a normal state. I could remember after her first chemotherapy session, the way she would throw up the contents of her stomach, however minimal they were; the way she would try to get up from her bed but was too weak to do so. I remember the horrible things. But I will also never forget the good things. With cancer treatment, you feel the worst before you feel better.
You see, when a member of the family gets cancer, it’s like everyone has the disease, because it is so crippling. It changes family dynamics. You are forced to learn new ways of living to accommodate the change. Most of the time, I feel like I’m stuck in this endless loop of the same nightmare, and everyday I keep hoping I wake up from this bad dream. But this is reality: my mother has lost her right breast. Soon she will begin losing some hair, too, because of the treatment.
It is very hard for a woman to go through something like this—losing the physical manifestations of what “identifies” her as a woman in this society. It is because of this very reason that I began to realize how these things actually serve purely aesthetic purposes when it comes down to it. Oftentimes, we define beauty by external features. But this should not be what makes us beautiful.
Beauty goes beyond the physical. Beauty is strength. Beauty is compassion. Beauty is attitude. Beauty is looking your worst fear right in the face and being able to see the silver lining. Beauty is the ability to love wholeheartedly, even if you feel like your own heart is broken. Looking at my mother, I can honestly say that she’s never looked more beautiful than she does now—with her right breast gone and with her scars as proof that she has battled a deadly disease.
After the storm, you begin to search for the rainbow. You realize that having support is a big step towards recovery and that every story of survival serves as hope. You realize that having cancer is not a death sentence.
My mother is not just a statistic. She is so much more than that. Cancer will not define her, and neither should it define other women battling the same disease. My mother is loving, understanding, and strong. With or without cancer, she continues to be the same person and refuses to let this disease control how she lives her life. I guess my only regret is that it took a disease for me to really look, listen, and know my mother as a woman and not just a parent.
In the realm of possibility, anything can happen, but it is the perception that makes a difference. I refuse to let this disease dictate the way we live our lives. Cancer is a learning experience, and it taught me to appreciate life. It led me to an understanding that this word we fear, cancer, or “the big C,” can be overcome by an even bigger “C”: courage.
Frances Grace Damazo, 22, lives in the Philippines. She took a break from law school to pursue writing. She currently works at an organization which helps in the rehabilitation and recovery of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. In her spare time, she can be found reading her favorite books in quaint cafes all over the city. Follow her musings on Twitter at @randamazo.
(Image via Facebook.)
When I was fifteen years old, my mother died of brain cancer.
She’d been sick and receiving treatment in France for the past eleven months. I had spent three to four of those months with her, watching as she went through radiation and chemo. I watched her learn how to walk again, relearn basic multiplication, grow hair again, saw her spirits rise and fall depending on what kind of day or week she was having.
I was also there for the end, the final six months where the doctors had her on steroids and morphine so that she could die in comfort.
Three months before she died, she told me she wouldn’t be around much longer. At first I was incredulous. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to believe that she could die, rather that I actually didn’t believe that she would die. “Those types of things don’t happen to people like me,” I thought. Not that I knew who they happened to. I cried when I learned that her illness was terminal. I think the idea of her dying made me sadder than any understanding of what it would actually mean to not have her around.
I tried so hard to imagine a life without her. She had been on tour a lot when I was younger so I knew what it was like to not see her for weeks, and she had been in France most of that year so I could also imagine months without her. What I didn’t know how to imagine was the way losing someone forever affects you, the way grief trickles into the recesses of your mind and impresses upon the way you feel and act. I had lost grandparents and an uncle, but never someone like her.
This loss was different.
When my mother had first gone to France to seek treatment we weren’t sure how long she would be away. “One or two months,” she assured me. I thought that was such a long time. My brother and I considered moving to France for the year but decided against it. It was my brother’s senior year and we figured the familiarity of school and friends would help us. As months passed and she didn’t come home, my mother grew frustrated.
In January of 2007 she told us that no matter what she would be home to see Gabriel graduate from high school. Even in hospice she would talk about coming home and the golden retriever she would get (she got the idea from a stuffed animal golden retriever named Cous Cous her best girl friend had brought her from the states). My brother and I played along because it was comforting to dream of a future together even if we knew there was none.
The flight from France to New York takes about seven hours, and on June 8th, the day of Gabriel’s graduation, seven hours before he graduated my mother passed away. It was too perfect to be a coincidence. She had kept her promise, even if doing so meant she would no longer exist the way we had known her to.
When my father gave us the news, I cried. But I didn’t feel sad. I was relieved that she wasn’t suffering anymore. The next day we flew to Paris. When we arrived at the hospice we were led to the basement to see her body. The room was small. There was a table in the left hand corner that held a radio playing classical music. Straight ahead was her open casket; she lay inside, surrounded by flowers, wearing her wedding dress, with her hands crossed across her stomach, her head wrapped in a scarf, and her face made up. Her mouth was turned down at the corners, and her hands looked fake.
The moment I saw her, tears streamed down my face. I walked up beside her, sat down in a chair and stared at her. I asked my father and brother to give us a moment. After they left, I began talking to her, but I couldn’t stop crying. It had been two months since I had been back to see her, so I had much to share. Although she could not reply, it did not bother me. I told her about school and my friends. After fifteen minutes, I said good-bye and went back upstairs.
That had been the first day people could see her and the next would be the last. Sunday afternoon I found myself in the hospice again. Peter, one of my mother’s best friends, was downstairs in her room, decorating her casket. I ran downstairs and walked into her room to find various family members, including her husband Patrick and his mother. Patrick was dressed entirely in black, he was not smiling, and he spoke in a hushed tone of voice. I didn’t understand whom he was speaking so quietly for, it wasn’t as if he was disturbing anyone’s peace.
The next day I was able to look at her and smile.
I understood that, for me, it wasn’t my mother who was lying that casket, it was just her body, the package I had always known her in. The things I missed and loved most about her: her humor, and the sound of her laugh were not gone; it was simply her body. After everyone left, Peter and I were the only ones left in the room. We looked at each other and suddenly we both began laughing. “I keep imagining what she would say if she could see herself like this,” he said between refrained laughter. Tears came to my eyes, and I could feel her laughing with me.
Filed Under: Articles, Figuring Stuff OutTagged With: bereavement, brain cancer, cancer, daughter, death, grief, lifestyle, loss, Love, mom, mother