Six years later and only a few months after discovering her illness, breast cancer took the life of my mother's younger sister and best friend. My aunt was my mother's sounding board. The one person listening unconditionally to the fear of finding the lump, the disbelief it was cancer, the rigors of chemo. She got all the gory details. How was it possible her own cancer advanced, seemingly without warning? Weren't there symptoms? Something? Anything, that seemed off? Maybe, maybe not. Who can say what she experienced, what her fears may have been and whether or not she could voice them.
Losing her sister to the very disease she had beaten was unbearable for my mother. She felt it was her fault somehow. Perhaps she hadn't spread the word enough, didn't scream the signs loud enough. I don't think she ever believed she wasn't responsible for protecting her sister. A hard thing to live with.
A few years after that my mother had a recurrence and things never really went back to normal. As they say, we learned to live a new normal. By this time, I was in my 30's and getting mammograms every two or three years. I now had a family history I wasn't born with, yet conversations with Mom just skimmed her deep rooted concern for me. I'd get the occasional questions dropped into the middle of a phone call,
"Are you taking care of yourself? Getting checked?"
Not wanting to venture into unpleasant territory, I would give a quick answer, "Yes, all is fine." Topic addressed, subject changed.
My mother died in 2000. The very same week my brother's mother-in-law, whom we all adored, was diagnosed. Now, there seemed no respite between the women, between the horror stories, the surgeries, the blood tests, the tumor markers. What was the number this time? We lived and breathed by those results. None of us could just be. A cruel twist of fate was taking an entire generation of women from my family.
At 40, I began yearly mammograms. How could I not? I carried these women with me. I believed they died because they had the bad luck of being born too early. Before the advances in breast cancer detection, before heightened awareness brought the disease out of the shadows, before some miracle drugs that may have helped stave off the inevitable. Not going would have been disrespectful to their memory, not to mention, unbelievably stupid. I felt I owed them more than that.
Approaching 45, an ultrasound was tossed into my mix for the first time, and there it was, not on the mammogram as you would expect, but that ultrasound -- Newly added to the routine check because of my mother, because of my aunt. Without that ultrasound, I would have blindly lived another year thinking I was fine, while it grew inside.
In 2009, it had a name all its own, not just Breast Cancer, but Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Discovered while still under half a centimeter and zero node involvement. Stage 1. I was lucky that day.
My women fought their battles in strong silence, but their message carried through loud and clear. Their legacy wasn't the cancer. It was their journey that educated and enabled me to be diligent with my own screenings. I can say with certainty, if it were not for them, my cancer would not have been found as early. That's a fact and that's quite a gift they've left behind.