By Michelle Lawrence, MPH
"Hi sweetie, I have something very important to tell you." Although I was only 8 years old, I could tell that my mother’s kind tone was only a gentle precursor for what she was about to say. She gazed at me with a sincere face and tears in her eyes as she explained to me that she had been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She said that our lives would be quite different for a while. My mother, at the time, was 38 years old.
She did her best to keep my schedule as consistent as possible. We rarely even mentioned her diagnosis again after our little talk. For weeks, I was quite confused and had some questions that I was afraid to ask. I watched my mother take several different kinds of funnily-named medications, struggle with rounds of surgical procedures, and even shave her head. While the other neighborhood children played outside, I was busy trying to find ways to entertain my then one-year-old baby sister. At night, I had nightmares about a monster named “cancer”. I would wake up looking around corners and under my mother's bed for “cancer.” I wanted to stop it from hurting my mother, but I never could find it.
I was petrified and would think to myself “What if it comes while we are sleeping or unprepared?” My mother must have noticed my strange behavior, because she eventually took me with her to a doctor's appointment. I sat in the examination room and pretended to read a magazine, when a tall man wearing a white coat entered. He had a warm smile that immediately made me feel at ease. He told me that he was a doctor and that he would do his best to take care of my mother. He then proceeded to explain what cancer was and how radiation treatment, medication, and chemotherapy would help my mother get better. They were supposed to “slay” the cancer monster. It was at that moment, in that examination room, I knew that everything would be okay. We had a chance.
Now that I am an adult, and the daughter of a 15-year breast cancer survivor, my concerns about breast cancer are much different. They do not involve trying to find a scary monster. As I get closer to the age my mother was when she found a lump in her breast, my concerns for my own health are real. I am a 24-year-old with an increased risk of breast cancer due to my family history (mother and grandmother). Because of this, I visit a breast specialist every six months for close monitoring and ultrasounds. Before these visits I often have intense anxiety, panic attacks, and bouts of hypochondria. Sometimes the fear of the unknown is truly crippling. But after these appointments, I am relieved and reassured because I have chosen to take my health into my own hands. I imagine that many people like myself have similar concerns, who are faced with the risk of eventually having a cancer diagnosis like their parents. However, there are ways to cope.
I cope by dedicating my life to the research affecting cancer-stricken populations. As a staff member at The Gulf States Young Breast Cancer Survivor Network, I have the opportunity to meet young breast cancer survivors, hear their stories, and provide the needed resources to make their lives easier. Breast cancer is a disease that not only attempts to destroy its host, but has an effect on everyone around as well. Through my experiences, I have learned that it is important to: 1) have conversations with your loved ones about fears; 2) to know your risk factors; and 3) have regular checkups. Being an informed partner in care is key! Family members, health care providers, specialists, and genetic counselors can play a big part in keeping you informed about genetics, abnormal changes in your body, and your overall health. Being vigilant and knowing about your health status is empowering and reduces fear and anxiety. Be your own biggest advocate!
For more information and resources, check out the rest of our site. Also be sure to take a look at this graphic about talking to your kids about cancer.