Note: This is not my normal light and fluffy post, dear internet. Today I am going to get all serious on you about my family’s experiences with cancer. So if you are looking for puppies, sunshine, and sarcasm, come back tomorrow.
*Some dates and situations my not be off due to the emotional influences inherent in any witness testimony, but this is an honest recollection of my memory of it all.
I was ten. I don’t remember the wording, but I remember my family went into the living room… that slightly forbidden room in the house used primarily for Christmas. This is not the space we played Legos in or did crafts. This was the serious room. And all I remember hearing was; Mom is sick, but she is going to fight it and be okay.
I know there were more details and probably a much stronger cushioning, but that was my take away. I was strangely not afraid. I was 10, what did I know? I remember over the next couple weeks how completely honest and open both my parents were. They explained everything, even if I didn’t truly understand. This cancer thing wasn’t some scary mysterious black hole. It was an illness in her breast and we were going to fight it with something called Chemo.
I still commend my parents on that, to this day. Everything was so transparent and open. We talked about things, and we learned to find the humor in moments. I went with my mom to treatments, saw the process and talked with the nurses. This cancer thing was not going to loom over us as a dark cloud. We just had to fight it, together, as a family.
When she finished treatment and was cancer-free, we all celebrated. It felt like a family victory. However the party was short-lived as a week later my Grandpa’s cancer came out of remission with a vengeance. Was it exactly a week? I don’t know, but that is how it will ever be captured in my mind. He fought, and fought hard, but it had moved into his bones and soft tissue and he died.
And I began to understand. Cancer didn’t always lead to Disneyland. You didn’t always win.
And so life went on. I mourned my Grandpa and got older. Every year, there was a week of subtle, underlying worry as we waited for the annual check-up results. And a collective sigh of relief would go up every time we got that cancer-free check-mark.
But as anyone who has dealt with cancer knows, there is a reason we use the term remission. You may be cancer-free at the moment, but it can be a hibernating seed, just waiting for the right soil and weather conditions to bring it back to life.
Strangely I don’t recall the specific circumstances of hearing it’s back. I was 17 and remember being frustrated with the world, the unfairness of it all. My mom was a wonderful person. She was kind, and hard-working and otherwise healthy. She had already fought so hard once. It was eternally unfair that she should have to go through that again.
This time we went for a mastectomy accompanied with a side of chemo and radiation, then a particular drug called taxotere. While effective for cancer treatment, the steroids that accompany it can have some awful side effects.
From time to time, the drug would make my mom go all Mr. Hyde. I remember watching her, trapped behind an irrationally angry, ‘roid-induced mask. I remember trying so hard to make her understand that we knew it wasn’t her fault while we hunkered down to weather the storm. This wasn’t really her and no matter how much she knew that her emotions were irrational, she simply had no control over them. I remember her apologizing after. She didn’t need to though. She never needed to apologize.
Cancer owed us apologies, never her.
We made it through the treatment, the drugs and all the side-effects. We fought it with humor and love and excessive tendency for hugs. She finished treatment. A week went by.
Then my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
You reach a point sometimes where you wonder if life is playing a trick on you. You want to stop and look for the hidden cameras, because this must be a joke. Sometimes it seems that too much is thrown at you… surely this time you will break, not bend. But somehow, from within that, my family embraced the concept of tempered steel.
Tempering steel is a very old method for creating incredibly strong metal. The steel is thrust into the fire, time and time again. Each time it emerges from the flames, it is hammered and bent and folded back over itself, building strength and resiliency. It’s the continual hammering which gives it power. It’s the heat which rebuilds while destroying.
If my family was to have a motto, a crest, a philosophy, it is that of tempered steel. Even though we fear the fire, it makes us stronger. Growing through the process, not fighting it will make us more solidly ourselves. We must embrace the forge, not dread it.
One more challenge, one more hammering, and my dad successfully finished treatment. We were nothing if not old pros at this whole cancer-gig by now. Having an immediate member of my family actively battling cancer had become a surreal sort of norm. But we had made it through again, and all the stronger for it.
Once again, time passed. We graduated high school and college and moved all over the country into our own lives. My parents settled into happily empty nesting and house projects and the normalcy of life. As with all things, time mutes any sense of fear. As relevancy faded behind day to day living, cancer settled quietly into the back corner of my mind, just a story to tell about part of my childhood that made me who I am.
But it still lingered, my family’s own twisted version of the seven-year itch. Like any peaceful dream, dawn was bound to come again to wake us.
I recall very clearly finding out that the cancer was back, third times the charm. I was 25, and gloriously introverted into my own little world. My mom had called, and it took me several days to get back to her. I still feel horrendous for making her sit on the news for those days while I lollygagged around my own oblivious existence. When I finally got on the phone with enough time to chat, she told me simply and straight forward. It was back. And it was Stage Four.
That was the hardest initial challenge… my family always functioned from an action-based standpoint. Okay we know the facts. Now whats our next step? Whats our attack plan?
Stage Four certainly has an attack plan, but no winning, no finish line. There is no Disneyland trip at the end, no victory party. Stage Four is terminal.
Don’t think for a moment that the word terminal means the loss of hope. I will throw out my favorite counter-argument here… LIFE is terminal. Every single day anything could happen to make it our last. There is something strangely soothing in knowing the enemy, the assassin coming for you in the dark. We see you, cancer, I want to cry out. We see you and we will not go quietly.
And so five years have passed. We quietly shift from one treatment to another, finding the ones that best suspend the growth of those cruel little cells for as long as possible. And even though my mom is the one enduring treatment, I un-apologetically say we. My family is back in that fire together, supporting and fighting in our hearts. Together.
We fight for the quality of life, the carpe diem-ing, the embracing of the moments. We fight by not putting off trips and dreams and experiences. I think we embrace life a little more actively with that word terminal in the back of our minds. It’s not a word to strike fear, but to inspire… our battle cry against the cancers in all of our lives, be it mutated cells or apathy, cancer or ambivalence.
My mom isn’t dying from cancer. She’s living with cancer. She is living with an undesired companion who give her challenges and struggles, but never defines her path. She is, hands-down, one of the strongest people I have ever met.
Talking about cancer is never fun. Say you are at a party, or having a lovely, upbeat conversation. Nothing lightens the moment quite like telling friends that someone you know, some one in your family has cancer. Talk about an instant downer.
And that is just me experiencing it vicariously… I cannot even start to imagine how difficult it would be to declare that YOU were fighting cancer. The instant concern and pity, the worry that you need to be handled like porcelain and the underlying knowledge that shadows all future interactions; a feeling that cancer is a defining characteristic.
And that is simply not true. Whether you are a fighter, survivor, or just a concerned and involved bystander, cancer does not define us. It changes us, but it is not us.
I can’t like breast-cancer awareness month. I won’t embrace commercialism’s version of understanding how cancer effects people’s lives. I don’t wear pink ribbons on my jacket.
We carry our fight, our hopes and our awareness for cancer with us every single day, irrevocable etched onto our hearts and souls. It is branded by the fires of experience into our very beings and we are all the stronger for it.