How My Mother's Battle Against Breast Cancer Changed My Perspective On Life
I learned the hard way that the time to change your life isn't when something bad happens to you, it's before. As a result, I know what rock bottom feels like.
I was once paralyzed from the neck down for close to four months. It was quite arguably the most humbling experience I've ever experienced in my 31 years of existence, but this story isn't about me.
This story is about the only woman who has been in my corner since day one and will remain there for as long as she lives. This story is about Mom, and about how fortunate I am to still be able to enjoy her today:
I have now been in remission for six months from chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a neurological disorder that stems from the brain's inability to relay messages to the rest of the body.
The feeling of paralysis can be described as being awake for a coma. I don't wish that on anyone. At this point, I'm happier than a turtle on a conveyor belt, but this happiness will be short-lived.
Mom went for her annual mammogram, and since she has always been diligent, the expected negative result came back. We had some celebratory sushi that night.
More than a year later, my remission continues. I'm now free to go back to South Florida, which is where I was living before I became ill.
Mom recently went in for her yearly mammogram. After a few days, she picked up her results to find that there was a suspicious lesion in her right breast. Talk about denial! Neither she nor I could accept the possibility of the worst, so we got a second and then a third opinion.
Blood tests and a very painful biopsy followed. For some reason, the anesthesia did not run its course.
After about a month of suspense, we got a phone call from the doctor saying the results of the biopsy had arrived. I slowly drove to the clinic, as if I was trying to avoid some sort of finish line. My hands were shaking on the steering wheel.
When we got to the office, more than half of the women in the waiting room sported a look of worry on their faces; the tension was almost palpable. The impatience was evident. I couldn't stop my restless leg from moving. They finally called us in.
Upon arrival, I could already tell by the tone of the doctor's voice that the visit wasn't going to go well. After some formalities, the doctor went ahead with her findings:
The biopsy is positive for cancer.
My heart dropped. I looked over at Mom and she was frozen. Ten seconds passed before she could even realize what she learned. I can't think of hearing worse words than the ones we just endured. I can't imagine what she was feeling at the time; come to think of it, I've never asked her. It's not something I want to bring up again.
"There's good news and bad news," the doctor said. "The cancerous tumor hasn't metastasized, which means it hasn't spread and can be easily removed through surgery. But during the biopsy, there was another suspicious lesion in the axillary area, so we need to do a second biopsy there, and we can do it right now."
I felt Mom sigh, but at least there was our silver lining. The cancer was relatively new and in the early stages, so we were somewhat relieved when we found out there was an immediate solution to our problem.
The second biopsy also came back positive of cancer, so a referral and visit to the oncologist was imminent to begin whatever treatment was necessary. He determined that the first step was surgery. The day after the appointment, we got on the phone and made proper arrangements.
If we were going to beat this, time was of the essence. Days before Thanksgiving, Mom went in for a lumpectomy (partial mastectomy) in order to remove the breast tumor and also all of the lymph nodes close to the one that was plagued with this disease.
As she went into the operating room, I helped her prepare, along with the nice nurses who were to take care of her right before surgery. The looks she gave me said it all: We were both terrified. I bid her farewell and began counting down the minutes until I could see her again.
Luckily, the hospital kept us posted through all stages, which made it easy for me to track her progress. What was forecasted to be a four-hour operation was taking longer than usual and I was starting to panic. The monitors on the waiting room walls were telling me she was now two hours past her initial timeframe.
Three extra hours had now passed and an attending physician finally told me that she was being carted up to a room on the fourth floor. I was so desperate that I took the stairs and skipped the elevator.
As much as I wanted to embrace her, I had to fight the urges because she was still coming out of anesthesia. She looked weak, but I knew she was strong. Her best friend was there to keep her company by my side.
The operation took longer because, along with the lumpectomy, 12 lymph nodes had to be removed, but thankfully, after two days in the hospital, they gave us the green light to take her home. We had dodged the first bullet.
A couple of weeks had come and gone while Mom was having a relaxing recovery at home. I was at her beck and call. One morning, we went in for an oncologist follow-up appointment so we could monitor Mom's post-op health.
The doctor explained how he was always active with clinical trials surrounding this illness and suggested we partake in one that could ultimately prove beneficial. The study sought to find out if chemotherapy was a necessary post treatment for Mom's type of cancer.
The members who agreed to be a part of the trial were to be divided into two separate groups. One would take an estrogen-inhibiting pill (believed to minimize the possibility of relapse) along with chemo and radiotherapy. The other group would take only the pill and receive only radiotherapy.
Needless to say, Mom and I were hoping she would fall into the latter. A few days later, that's the news we received; we were elated.
January 2014-March 2014
As a participant of the clinical trial, Mom had to do her part and be the recipient of the infamous radiotherapy — daily sessions for 35 days, to be exact. I went with her on most occasions; they typically lasted 10 minutes each.
In the beginning, things were a bit uncomfortable for her, as one might expect, but Mom eventually calmed down. Repetition, however, would soon take its toll on her wounded area.
Slowly and steadily, she began to experience discomfort and it would rear its ugly head in the form of a black patch of burnt skin as a result of the continued radiation; it was devastating.
There were days when she would come home and the effects of the radiation became so taxing that she would have no choice but to crash for hours at a time. It was excruciating to watch an otherwise happy and active woman fall so helplessly into a defeated state, day-in and day-out.
As her only son, it crushed me; I felt so helpless.
April was a month full of rest, but not before scheduling endless trips to medical offices. Most of the stops were for lab work, CT scans, bone scans and every other test imaginable. Finally, the 20th of the month rolled around and we paid the oncologist a visit.
After reviewing the latest test results carefully, the doctor turned to my Mom and said, "Well, Brenda, after reviewing your results, it's with great pride that I inform you there is no sign of cancer anywhere in your body."
Mom describes the feeling that ensued as one of simultaneous calm and excitement. I know exactly what she means. And, yes, we ate a lot of sushi that day.
Now, months later, I'm happy to report Mom is back to her usual self; she picked up right where she left off. In the months following the great news, she has joined various tennis teams and rediscovered her passion for salsa dancing. I'm very fortunate to be sharing this story with you while enjoying a happy ending.
I am conscious, however, that many people around the world are not able to report such great news. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and early detection plays a huge role in the survival of your loved ones.
Without my mom's diligent, proactive approach toward her health, I would probably be sharing a much different story than the one you've just read.
Cancer does not discriminate based on age, gender or race; it does not care one bit. Do yourself a favor: Go for a mammogram this month, if for nothing more than peace of mind.
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