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.)
(Illustration by Esther Werdiger)
Throughout my twenties there were more times than I can count when I found myself in a situation that made me think, “This would not make my mother proud.”
In nearly every one of those instances — whether in the basement of a lager-soaked Lower East Side bar, a conference room where I’d just sworn cattily at a co-worker or behind the wheel of a rental car I’d lightly crashed thanks to one of my four-inch heels getting squeezed between the brake and the accelerator — the next thing that crossed my mind was the same.
“She’s gone now. So it doesn’t matter.” As I approached 30, my state of suspended adolescence lurched onward.
I never believed my mother wasn’t flawed. Like most teenagers and young adults, I tended to disagree with her, often to the extent of tearful journal entries and screaming matches that left me slamming the door of my bedroom behind me.
But she was, unquestionably, calm and methodical and disciplined, an astute list-maker with handwriting that looked like it was straight out of a 19th-century calligraphy school. I, on the other hand, was impatient and sloppy, easily distracted and eager to push the boundaries my mother calmly told me were there for a reason.
Her demeanor was “Downton Abbey”-refined. I spoke in constant staccato, bug-eyed behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, with the sense of humor of a writer who dreamed of working for “The Colbert Report.” My mother was the one who could tell me when I should keep my eccentricities to myself, who gradually ironed the “ums” and “likes” from my speech, who assured me the rapid-fire, aggressive nature of my brain could be a powerful asset if I could only learn to rein it in. She taught me the value of the comforts of home, even if I didn’t always think there was anything to it. Her idea of leisure was reading a good book in the backyard. Mine was tramping around in the woods.
Little Caroline and her mother
As I grew older, I like to think that as I matured our relationship shifted to one of two adults, my mother and I were beginning to see eye-to-eye and gain a mutual respect for one another. I never found out whether this would actually happen. She died of breast cancer when I was 23.
At the time, I was teetering somewhere between the sweatpants-and-flip-flops college days and the early years of a career in media — between Ikea and West Elm, between Bud Lite and pinot noir. I don’t remember much about the days, or even weeks, after her death. My energy levels spiked, as though some enzyme in my mind had gone haywire from such an intimate reminder that we don’t, in fact, have all the time in the world. I remember sitting alone in the car in a parked suburban parking lot, playing the manic rhythms of an “Against Me” CD at full volume and quietly freaking out over the fact that I was caught between two parallel but conflicting emotional states.
“Nothing is holding me down anymore, and I can do what I want now.”
But also: “Nothing is holding me down anymore, and I don’t know where to go now.”
Subconsciously, I was scrambling to find a silver lining for my mother no longer being there as both moral compass and homing beacon. But I was really spinning in no particular direction, and it scared me. If I was distracted before, now I was just plain flighty and distant. I was a self-involved career drone. A commitment-phobe who fled romantic relationships as soon as meeting the family happened. Sometimes, thanks to my telecommuting-friendly work in digital media, I’d just up and disappear for a month. I was shocked when friends’ wedding invitations arrived in the mail; I’d stopped expecting that anyone would even invite me.
When I lost my mother, I tried to take on the world while not really participating in it. The grand result: I maintained a sort of permanent teenage mentality. By my late 20s, I’d never signed an apartment lease, owned a car, or purchased anything as domestic as a set of cutlery. I’d begun to speculate that I wasn’t particularly likeable.
It was going to have to stop, somehow.
The thing that my mother and I had most in common is that we derived immense satisfaction from challenging, diligent work. She’d refused to take a leave of absence even as cancer treatments took an increasing physical toll on her, and she’d discouraged me from scaling back my own work while she was sick. She ultimately died over the Thanksgiving long weekend, and during the memorial service my father joked she’d timed it so that no one would miss any work or school.
And so, perhaps it was fitting that when I finally learned how to stop stumbling manically through life, it was revealed to me through my professional life. In 2013, I started freelance consulting after a job at a start-up didn’t work out. At first, this was thrilling. I could work in pajamas. I could poke in and out of client work, not needing to see the same people too often, and I could travel more than ever. But in the end, this pushed me over the edge. I was rootless. I couldn’t handle this lifestyle. I needed stability, and for the first time this was tearing at me enough that I was willing to take the initiative to figure it out myself.
And, thanks to both happy coincidence and a newfound willingness to put my trust in other people, I had both a job and an apartment by early 2014. I stopped thinking about whether whatever I was doing would meet my mother’s approval or disapproval, and started focusing on learning from what she’d do in each unfamiliar situation.
Of course, I still wish I could call my mother whenever I’m overwhelmed or bewildered. I still wish I could have seen our relationship make its full transition to one between adults. I think about how much she would have loved every role that Maggie Smith has played in the past decade, and how much I would have liked her to meet my cat.
But most of the time, I’m reassured by the tacit understanding that what would have truly made her proud is to know that, at long last, I can stand on my own.
I’m getting there.
Caroline McCarthy is vice president of communications and content at advertising technology company true[X] Media, and a former print and TV journalist. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat, Caterpillar, in an apartment where she finally has a dishwasher and a name on the lease and other adult things.
Share on Pinterest