When we talk about breast cancer in this country, there’s so much that we don’t say.
When my mom was diagnosed in August of 2011, my family and I found a tremendous amount of material on beating this disease, but very little on living with it.
We weren’t at the part of the story that the commercials and print ads were, with their one-breasted woman scaling mountains in Lululemon gear -- proclaiming that she had conquered cancer. My mom was trying to get through the daily mountain of pills that she had to take to keep nausea, pain, infection and replicating cancerous tissue at bay.
My family, we’re not at the part where we’re dripping in pink and sweat from a Susan B. Komen walk; we’re just celebrating the small victories of my mom being able to drive on her own. (She still can’t pump her own gas, because of the chemicals.)
My mom is using all of her savings and insurance to tackle over $500,000 in medical bills. Did you know that the mastectomy is just the beginning? For my mom, who got a double mastectomy, she opted to have her breasts reconstructed with fat and tissue removed from her stomach, thighs and hips. Sometimes, those can all be separate surgeries.
We knew she’d lose her hair, but no one told us that your hair will fall out in balls, leaving your head, as she put it, “looking like a burnt patch work quilt.” For my mom, who was once asked out on a date by Liam Neeson, who the gods gifted with naturally straight thick hair, this was tough.
“How does it look?” she asked me the first time I saw her newly shaven head. I told her she looked great -- and she did. She looked alive, which meant so much more than eye-brightening mascara. She was still here.
I noticed she was wearing a store-bought beanie. No one in my family wore those, as my grandmother Viola makes everyone’s beanies, footies and quilts.
“I can’t wear it,” she said, sheepishly rubbing her head. Her head was so bare that the yarn from the beanies that she had grown up wearing would’ve scratched it mercilessly.
Her eyes looked down, saying, “I’m so sorry honey that I can’t do the things I used to do.” I was angry. No, eff that. I was livid. I was livid that my mom, this former model, this former executive, this woman who had taught me how to kick ass and take names had been so betrayed by her body and God.
Why hadn’t anyone told us that chemo would rob her of everything –- strength, eyebrows, breasts, and an immune system? The green smoothies that she loved, I could no longer make more than twice a week because the antioxidants would interfere with the efficacy of the drugs and chemo. Trying to drink one fourth of a milkshake with my brother and me landed my mom in the hospital with pneumonia. The portacath which carried the poison into her body made hugs painful and potentially life threatening if bacteria came too close; chemo destroys your immune system. No one tells you that chemo will take your life before it gives it back. It just robs you blind.
Back in Los Angeles, I could barely contain my rage but I made sure that I was too busy to think about it. I was teaching, enrolled in classes and had a fellowship at NBC. I didn’t have time to be angry. That is, until my car was broken into.
I had spent Thanksgiving in San Francisco with one of my best friends and boyfriend, volunteering at soup kitchen. Less than two days later, my clothes were strewn out on the sidewalk of a homeless shelter. The homeless man or woman who broke into my car took ¾ of my closet and the rest of my sanity.
I had a meltdown in the middle of downtown SF. I stormed the streets, looking for my stuff, screaming and pointing up at the sky, “Fuck you! Fuuuuuuck you, God! I’m sick of your shit!” My poor boyfriend was left to chase me as I darted across green-lit traffic into the way of on-coming cars. For a brief moment, I thought I could run from San Francisco to Dallas.
For the first time in my life, my faith in God was deeply shaken and I truly lost my mind. I felt my entire life seeping out of me, one loss at a time, as though each lost hair strand of hers, each ounce of breast tissue, each article of my stolen clothing on the sidewalk, was a piece of me. I felt like all of me, even the parts that I no longer had to give, were being taken.
Surviving breast cancer is much more than the pink ribbons and the 5K walks. Pink isn’t the only ribbon –- there’s brown too, like the pink and brown ribbons of scar tissue around my mom’s breasts, under her arms and on her stomach.
Diana Vreeland once said, “A woman is made beautiful by her scars,” and my mom’s remind me of how hard she fought to be here and how absolutely stunning she is and will always be. My mom can’t do a 5K walk yet, but she can walk to the mailbox and do light grocery shopping again.
Those unremarkable, mundane, victories is what surviving breast cancer is for her.
For me, it’s having the luxury of being able to worry about first world problems like figuring out how I’m going to bridge my life as a film school graduate to a working television writer and author.
Watching my mom fight for her life so young –- she was 48 when she was diagnosed –- made me wonder if it was only a matter of time before my own body turned on me as well. The women in my family share a special bond and that, unfortunately, includes cancer: my grandmother survived cervical cancer, my great-aunt survived breast cancer and a first cousin’s cervical cancer just returned.
My mom tried to get me to go through the genetic testing that assesses one risk for breast cancer, but I just nodded blankly and changed the subject. My aunt tried, my doctor, even my therapist, but the truth was that I was trying to keep it together. I couldn’t afford to know.
I’ll eventually get the tests done, but honestly, I’m just not ready. (I am aware of my extremely high risk and will begin mammogram screenings when I turn 30 in three years.) I already know that I belong to the coolest girl group ever –- the LaBouviers -- but I’m not ready to confirm the membership dues.
I haven’t run a marathon yet, but I know that I’ve run the race of my life this year. I didn’t set a record time, run for my country or any of those noble things. I survived with the love and support of my family, friends, boyfriend, therapy and academic advisors. I am making it, one moment at a time.