SelenaWolf's Story: My Mom and I Both Had Breast Cancer

SelenaWolf's Story: My Mom and I Both Had Breast Cancer

A mother’s persistence to examine breasts regularly helped SelenaWolf find a developing cancer missed by mammography.

SelenaWolf is a member of the Community.

Everyone has a date; a date on which their lives change forever. It usually marks a turning point; a time in one’s life when things irrevocably change. Sometimes it marks a joyful milestone, such as an engagement, a wedding or the birth of a long-awaited child or grandchild. Other times, it commemorates something more poignant, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one. Some people have already experienced their date; others have yet to experience it, but everyone will, eventually, be able to point to a day in their life and say,"There! It is, then, that everything changed..."

Being diagnosed with cancer is life-altering. No one forgets the date that they discovered a lump or heard the dreaded words,"You have cancer…." The words sear themselves into your brain, burn themselves on your mind, and permanently scar your heart. There is no way you can un-hear them. There is no way they can be taken back. They are the most frightening three words in existence. And they are unforgettable.

Breast cancer was never a journey I wanted to take. Who does? But it was one that I was fearfully half-expecting. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. When she was in her late thirties, a lump that she had had since she was a teenager appeared to be changing and growing. Since this was the 1960’s, when only one in three women survived breast cancer, her doctor and surgeon decided that the safest course of action was to perform a mastectomy. As it turned out, pathology was never able to positively identify the lump as either cancerous or non-cancerous, but — for years afterward — my mother was followed-up annually by an oncologist just to be safe.

Both this brush with cancer, as well as being a nurse, meant that my mother became an early advocate for both breast self-examination and regular breast screening. It wasn’t political for her: she did not lobby medical associations, she never marched to raise awareness and she, certainly, never donned a pink tutu. For her, it was deeply personal. And, as soon as my sister and I developed bust lines, my mother insisted on showing us how to conduct a self-exam.

You can imagine our adolescent embarrassment. The first time my mother demonstrated how to examine my breasts for lumps I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. I felt that I had been traumatized for life. I could not believe she was making me do this, but she was adamant. She insisted that I should never rely on a doctor to tell me what was happening in my body; that it was in my best interest to know my own body from head to toe and the only way to know my body was to examine it myself. She said that only by knowing what was supposed to be there would I be able to know what wasn’t.

As I entered my 30s, my mother began nagging me to enroll in the Ontario Breast Screening Programme and begin having regular mammograms. At 30, I felt that it wasn’t necessary, but my mother reminded me that she was only 39 when she had a mastectomy. So, when I, tentatively, broached the subject with my doctor, she agreed that – given my mother’s history – it was, probably, a wise move. So, requisition in hand, I reluctantly slunk off for my first mammogram.

The mammogram was both embarrassing and uncomfortable, but it was over in a matter of minutes. Everything looked good and, because I was well under the age of 50, I was offered the choice of having a yearly screening or a biennial one. I decided that the biennial one would be sufficient, given my age and my doctor concurred with me. Of course, now, research has shown that younger, premenopausal women not only do develop breast cancer, but tend to develop more aggressive and harder-to-treat disease, but a mere twenty years ago, breast cancer was still considered to be your grandmother’s disease.

Once I started having regular, biennial mammograms, I didn’t examine my breasts quite as regularly. Once my mother found that out, she hit the roof. "Never, never, NEVER stop examining yourself," she said. "A mammogram is an excellent tool, but it can never know your breasts like you can. You must continue to check your breasts regularly." She insisted. I argued. She gave me "the look." I pleaded. She scowled and called me by my full name. I conceded.

My mother puts her money where her mouth is. A few years later, while examining her remaining breast in the shower, she discovered a lump. At the age of 73, 34 years after her first mastectomy, she was diagnosed with an early-stage, very aggressive breast cancer. This time the pathology was definitive. Less than a month later, she would have her remaining breast removed. This time, I sat up and took serious note.

Five months after my 50th birthday, just months after my last "all clear" mammogram, I found a lump in my left breast. After all the years of examining my breasts and wondering what it was I was supposed to be looking for, I suddenly knew. THAT was what I was looking for: that rock-hard, uneven lump that felt, for all-the-world, like a good-sized piece of gravel in my breast tissue. I sat bolt upright and felt again. My heart sank. It was still there. And I knew, without a doubt, that I was in serious trouble. Six weeks later, a series of diagnostic tests confirmed it: just as my mother was reaching her 5-year milestone, I had to call her and tell her that I had breast cancer.

My mother was completely devastated. Mothers are funny that way. They would rather face something like cancer themselves than to ever have their children suffer from it. If they could — if it was, at all, possible, to transfer the disease to themselves to spare their children — they would do it in a heartbeat. It didn’t matter that I was a middle-aged woman. I was still her daughter; her "baby," and she would have walked through fire rather than watch me go through this. This woman, who had been through so much during her own breast cancer journey, who had overcome so much with such dignity, was, suddenly, a guilt-ridden mess. She felt completely responsible. She felt that it was her fault that I had "inherited" this diagnosis. She kept apologizing for not being able to "take it back."

Later, I would learn that it takes, roughly, 4 to 8 years, depending on the aggressiveness of the disease, for a few microscopic breast cancer cells to grow into a lump that can be felt, which meant that, at the very least, two of my mammograms leading up to my diagnosis were "false negatives." When I questioned one of my oncologists about this, he said, "Well, you know, mammograms are only about 70% accurate." My jaw dropped. WHO FORGOT TO MENTION THAT? And, apparently, they can be even less accurate if you have dense breast tissue like I do. A small, developing tumor, simply, cannot be seen against the sea of white that dense breast tissue creates on the mammogram film. Thus, breast cancer can, often, escape detection until it grows big enough to be felt.

In a blinding moment of enlightenment, I realized that my mother, rather than placing my life at risk as she so desperately feared, had actually saved it. Because of her persistence over the years to examine myself regularly, I had "mapped" my own breasts in my mind, becoming so familiar with how they were constructed that, when mammography missed finding the developing cancer because of dense breast tissue, I was able to find it myself before it had progressed too far. My mother had bequeathed upon me the gift of Awareness. When I told her this, she burst into tears. Then, I watched in amazement, as she mopped her eyes, straightened her spine, gave me a look of steely determination and said, calmly, "You’re my daughter. You can do this."

Throughout the difficult months of treatment and recovery, my biggest supporter and my loudest cheering section was my husband. From the moment I told him that I had found a lump, he glued himself to my side and hardly ever left. He never missed an appointment, a test or a treatment. He sat in on all consultations, asked pertinent questions and remembered the answers. He read all the information I was given and asked more questions. Although he couldn’t walk in my footsteps, he did the next best thing: he walked beside me. When I faltered, he stood strong. When I wanted to give up, he refused to listen to me. When I didn’t think I could survive one more round of chemotherapy, he assured me that I could. He believed, without a doubt, that this was a struggle that I could win. At times I even believed him. But he never stopped believing in me. Not once. His confidence in me was staggering and, to this day, I believe that without it, without him, I might have given up. I’m still here because my husband insisted that I had to be.

I also had another special angel that helped get me through this dark time: a rather small, exceptionally opinionated, very old orange cat. Normally, a very independent sort of fellow, Malcolm, who’d been a member of our family for nearly 17 years, became my constant companion. He always seemed to know when the pain was bad and would silently appear at my side. When I was depressed, he would do something silly to make me laugh. When I cried, he’d reach out a paw and gently rest it on my face, seeming, for all-the-world, like he was wiping away my tears. When I woke in the night, he was there: awake, watchful and vigilant. Every morning, he cajoled me out of bed, insisting that we go out to the garden where I always ended up feeling more at peace. We shared silence. We shared lunch. We shared sunsets. His comforting presence helped me to find a quiet center in a deeply turbulent time. Flanked by my "boys," I felt that maybe, just maybe, I could do this. Sadly, as I recovered and grew stronger after treatment ended, Malcolm began to gently fade and, 6 months later, with heavy hearts we eased him into death with light, love, acceptance and gratitude for a job well done.

Other angels appeared throughout treatment: each one of them coming into my life and inspiring me when I needed it most. One day, about half-way through chemotherapy, my husband and I decided to drive to nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake and try to get away from cancer for a while. Although it was a cold, snowy day, we walked through the downtown, enjoying simply being together and popping in and out of the quaint shops.

In one shop, I noticed two women whispering and following me around. When they noticed me noticing them, the younger of the two approached me. Her friend, she said, gesturing to the older woman, was getting married the following spring and she really liked how I did my hair. Would I mind telling them where I got my hair done? My heart sank to my toes. I was as bald as a billiard ball and the hair that they were both admiring so much was one of my wigs. They looked at me expectantly. I looked back helplessly, not knowing what to say. Then, I took a deep breath, gathered my courage and told them that I was wearing a wig because I had recently lost all my hair to chemotherapy. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

The younger woman looked appalled, then deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely before walking quickly away. When I looked at the older woman, she was smiling gently with the most compassionate expression in her eyes. And I KNEW. I asked her how long it had been since she had breast cancer. She said 13 years. I asked if she had had chemotherapy and she said, no, but she had done the surgery and radiation and, a year later, when she developed problems "down below," she went through it all over again. I asked her, "How on earth did you get through it?" She replied, “You just get up every morning, put your feet firmly on the ground, thank God for another day, and keep moving forward."

We chatted a bit longer. She told me that in May she was finally marrying the love of her life and while she wouldn’t go so far as to say that breast cancer had been a gift, she did admit that it had brought her to one of the happiest times she had ever known. When I left the shop, I was in tears, but also more at peace than I had been for quite a few months. I never found out the woman’s name and she has no idea the gift that she gave me that day, but when May rolled around the following year, I thought of her and, every day throughout the month, silently offered blessings for her continued health and happiness.

A number of other angels inspired me throughout treatment and in the difficult months of regaining my health. There was my hairdresser, who started hiking with me as I struggled to build up my strength and deal with the numbing neuropathy in my toes. There was my neighbor who, despite some health issues of her own, came and cleaned my house every week, and brought dinner over for my husband when I just couldn’t face the work involved in preparing a meal. My GP’s nurse, no matter how crazy-busy she was, guided me deftly through the agonizing diagnostic process, always took the time to answer my questions and, on occasion, talked me down off the ceiling. My public and high school friends, a few of whom I hadn’t seen since I was 10 years old, rallied around and, through Facebook and emails, kept my spirits up with trips down Memory Lane. Another old friend called me each and every week to see how I was. And, last but not least, there was a special cadre of women, "The Margaritas," we called ourselves, who held both firm and fast; an incredible and loving circle of women of strength and grace who closed ranks around their fallen comrade.

There were other angels who, somehow, found the right thing to say at the right moment. Some were complete strangers: people I had never seen before or since. A few had been through cancer, a few more had loved ones who were going through it. All managed to say the right thing at the exact moment that I needed hope and inspiration. But the most inspirational thing ever said to me, the one I held closest to my heart throughout treatment and to this day, came from my husband: "You are one of the strongest women that I know,” he said, “but also know this: you are not facing this battle alone. I will sharpen your sword. I will carry your shield. Now get out there and FIGHT, and know that I will be right behind you. I will always and forever have your back."

There is nothing heroic about battling cancer. A hero is someone who has a choice: to stay safe or to wade into danger. With cancer, there is no choice. You do what you must to stay alive. And although I will never accept the oft-repeated saying that there are blessings to be found in cancer, I will concede that cancer provided me with some valuable insights. There can be humor and a sense of the ridiculous even in the most undignified moments. Knowledge can both empower and terrify, but it must never paralyze. It’s not about being optimistic, but about being determined and focused. Anger is a great motivator. Adversity brings out both the best and the worst in people. It is easy to lose your hair; it’s much harder waiting for it to grow back. There is a Perfect Moment in every day. And angels will always be put in your path when you need them most.

Everyone has a date. For me, it was Tuesday, May 31, 2011, at 9:34 p.m. At that moment, I looked the most fearsome enemy in the eye and knew without a doubt that I was in for the fight of my life. I began a journey of self-discovery that left me reeling with the sheer scope and intensity of it. Over the next several months, I would confront anger, terror, panic, grief, uncertainty, anguish, dread, shock and the most unbelievable physical pain I have ever encountered in my life. I would stride onto the battlefield not knowing how I would survive, but only knowing that I must. And, along the way, I learned something important about myself. I learned that I had a backbone of steel and an incredible will to live. I never knew that I had the heart and soul of a fighter and, prior to cancer, if anyone had told me that I had, I probably would have laughed at them. I never believed that I had the guts or the bravado. I never believed myself capable of facing my worst fear in such a head-on manner. But cancer proved me wrong. To my surprise I learned that I was, indeed, my mother’s daughter and a warrior worthy of my husband’s faith in me.