A Letter to My Mum on Her Battle with Breast Cancer
You know I love to write letters to people and then throw them away without sending them. It’s therapeutic for me and something I have always done (it’s cheaper than therapy). But this is a letter that I won’t throw away; this letter has been started many times in the past few months and each time I have been determined to finish it, but something has always stopped me, mainly sadness and fear. But today as I sit here and type I know that I will finish it. I am no longer fearful. Sad yes, but not fearful.
We knew you had it. Both Aimee and I said the night before that we knew it would be bad news, but that didn’t prepare either of us for what was to come the next morning.
I will never forget the words “Your mum has breast cancer” or the feeling in that moment that my world was falling apart. As I stood in my lounge room the floor felt like it gave way and I remember realising later on that I didn’t even feel myself hit the floor. I remember your voice when the phone was passed to you and all I could say was sorry over and over again. For what I wonder now? Sorry for what I knew you would have to endure before this was over. Sorry because you sounded like a broken person and I didn’t know what else to say? Sorry because in that moment I knew you had to be fearing for your life? I was. So of course you had to have been.
Our world did fall apart that day, and again many times over the next little while as we all came to terms with the fact that you are not invincible. Even at 32 that was a shocking revelation to me, that you could have been taken from us, that you had a disease in your body that has taken the lives of so many women. You knew it; I knew it and everyone around knew it. That you were looking a horrifying challenge straight in the eye and no one knew how it would all play out.
I know that making the decision to have a double mastectomy when both breasts have cancer, (one contained and one more invasive and aggressive) to other women not facing the reality of the decision making, seems easy. It did to me too. But I know now that even though a surgery may be lifesaving it is also life-altering. It will forever change your appearance, your body perception and ultimately how you feel about yourself and when it’s all over and done with this may turn out to be your biggest hurdle.
It will forever be planted in my memory the moment you were wheeled away for surgery, we just stood there looking at you as they took you away, no one knowing what was going to happen over the next five hours. The minutes seemed like hours and the hours felt like days. I remember looking at the time and thinking an hour must have passed and it had been 14 minutes. I remember getting into the car to go into town to try and distract ourselves and ‘Wind beneath my wings’ blasting from the radio and Aimee and I both lurching towards the front of the car to stop Bette Midler in her tracks.
I remember thinking that as a nurse I would need to be strong and step up, that when they bring you back to your room I would need to take a breath and then be the strong one. And then you were back. And I had never felt so weak, powerless or less able to cope in a situation than I did in that moment.
The next morning you wanted to have a shower. As we walked into the bathroom together all I kept thinking was that we were about to see the cuts and scars that may have saved your life – but they have also changed your life. I remember telling myself to keep it together, to not let anything show on my (usually over expressive) face and to know that whatever I saw or felt was nothing compared to what you were about to go through. We tackled the fluid lines and drains and slowly we peeled away the clothing. I remember your face dropping, your eyes filled with tears and the words “I look like a boy” breaking my heart. I said to you and I meant every word “I see the bravest woman I know who just saved her own life.”
It hasn’t all been sadness and crying. There have been times when the laughter has been so loud that people around us probably thought we were crazy. The irony wasn’t lost on us when we were in Target looking for extra extra extra large maternity bras for me and training bras for you, I’ll never forget standing in the change room without our tops on laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe as we stood there and looked at each other.
Or the time I rang you to tell you my allergy testing came back and I found out I was allergic to Nickel. “Nipples…you are allergic to nipples? Oh me too, I had to have mine removed” was the response that came back and I still remember the pause from Aimee and I, not knowing if we should laugh or cry. So we laughed.
And then came the Chemo. Every Friday for three months and then every third Friday until October this year. The morning of your first treatment, October 21st 2016, also happened to be the day I gave myself the last injection of our fertility cycle that month. I remember standing in your kitchen and doing it, and saying to you “imagine if after a year of doing this to myself, this one actually worked”. And here we are, five weeks away from holding our baby. Someone up above must have known how much this little baby was needed this year.
We still talk about your first treatment, it was unbelievably overwhelming and the room felt like it wouldn’t stop getting smaller and smaller. You stayed curled up in a ball under a blanket for most of it. Maybe because if you couldn’t see everyone around you it wasn’t happening. The noises, the voices and the whole scenario of sick men and women around you were all too much and I remember thinking that I didn’t know if you would be able to do it. Then three weeks later I went with you and you were a new person, dressed up, lippy on and telling me which of the recliners was ‘your chair’. You knew everyone by name, you were smiling and laughing with other patients as I just sat there thinking …”Whaaaaat is going on here?” You were a new woman. You had come to terms with what was happening and you were taking it in your stride.
We knew your hair would fall out, it was inevitable. We also knew that this could be your downfall, because like any one of us there is only so much a person can go through before they have had enough. Losing your hair was your last straw (well until your eyelashes fell out). I knew it was frustrating for you to have people telling you that it would grow back, it means the treatment is working and that it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, but it is. And even though those people were trying to keep you in good spirits all you wanted to hear was how shit it was that this was happening.
Luckily you know how to rock a chemo turban and it turns out that they really suit you (imagine if they didn’t?!). I remember buying you a turban to take home for you and thinking to myself, “Is this really happening? Does my mum really have cancer?” I dreaded seeing you without hair, I felt sick about it and my heart was thumping the entire trip home. It was as awful as I thought it would be. You looked sick. Sicker than I had ever seen you and all of a sudden you looked like you had cancer and I didn’t want to see that.
Your hair is coming back, your eyelashes too and your sense of empowerment and inner strength is radiating out of you. I know you still have some challenges to get through over the next few months, but FINALLY the end is in sight and we are all right behind you as you run for the finish line.
I have watched you tackle every challenge head on, never shying from anything and always trying to remain positive even though at times you are so scared and lost on the inside. I have sat with you and cried at what could have been, at what is and at what the future may bring. This has shaken each of us to the core and I don’t think any one of us are the same person we were before your diagnosis in August last year, least of all you. I think you have surprised yourself at how boldly and bravely you have faced this.
I am proud to be to be your daughter and I can’t wait to see you holding our baby in a few short weeks.