Written by Wanda Leonard, Neogenics Brand Ambassador
It's About Everyone Else Till It's Not
It seems like the moment I hit adulthood, I began to hear of people being diagnosed with breast cancer. Friends I went to high school with, people I thought were just too young, too early in life, finding themselves in life-changing treatment. I was glad to help and support others on that road, but when it came to me, I avoided the topic at all costs.
Then in 2009 my mother was diagnosed.
From the moment we got the news, instinctly I knew my life and everything I knew to be true was about to be drastically different. I decided it was time to take action and do everything I possibly could for my mom. You see, because I am the oldest of four, the mother of three and able to juggle more things at a time than I can count, I most definitely could rise to this occasion. After all, it was my birthright and my job.
At the time, I was 6 hours away, extremely busy with 3 very active kids, dealing with a multitude of health issues, only seeing my husband in passing and struggling to make ends meet. I decided I had to find a way to get closer to my mom and siblings. Afterall, what kind of daughter would I be if I didn’t drop everything and make it happen. I was glad to do it and thankful for the time with her.
She was so brave through her treatment. I was in complete awe and often times didn’t feel that I was doing enough for her. As with most of the previous crises in my family and personal life, my work of caring for her provided a difficult but effective way for me to avoid dealing with my feelings about my mom's diagnosis, and what I needed to be doing about my own health and everything around me.
Procrastination Helps No One
Each year after her diagnosis, my Mom would remind me, would bug me, would get on my case about getting my mammogram. And every year, I pushed it off and pushed myself in this panic mode. I was a hot mess waiting for the appointment, then waiting for the doctor to call me with my results, almost like I was holding my breath. But the day I heard "no cancer," I was back to living on my terms, literally like it had never happened. You see, I had absolutely no time for a disease that could derail my plans and interrupt my life.
And I certainly didn't want to talk about breast cancer, especially with my Mom. My way of being a supportive daughter was to jump into breast cancer-related causes and learn just enough to hold a conversation, but not enough to express any deep knowledge on the subject. It was not like I all of a sudden became comfortable with breast cancer. My job was just to support from the surface. Need a t-shirt? How about a meal or a pillow? Yep, that is my area of expertise. Keeping you uplifted and comfortable is what I do well.
As time went on, I found myself resenting my Mom's need to continue talking about breast cancer as if she was still in treatment. I wanted her to celebrate her remission and recovery and move on. I often thought, "Come on, Mom, can't you just live your life? It's over. We don't have to keep talking about this..." I was ready for her to be done with breast cancer.
But as I learned later, the experience of breast cancer isn't something you just check off the list or throw out of your mind once you reach survivor status.
Pro Tip: Don't lie to your Mama
It was December 2013, and I'd put off my mammogram all year like it was my primary job to do so. It actually was my job that kept me from taking care of myself the way I should- day after day of extreme high-stresses, long nights and weekends, and no time for anything else. I even had to lie to my Mom towards the end of the year because I waited so long that I could not get an appointment until the beginning of the year. In my mind, I rehearsed the previous several years of mammograms and believed all would be fine. Mom would never have to know, and it was better to relieve her worry than add to it.
In January, one mammogram became two. "Calcification" they said. A second mammogram became two ultrasounds, and then a biopsy...
And we waited. I told myself if they find something, it'll probably be pre-cancer, it won't be much, it'll just be something they'll have to watch over time. After all, I did perform my regular self-exams and I'd had several years of "no cancer," it couldn't happen to me. They would have definitely seen it by now.
Be careful what you wish for.
My husband had left for work, the call came in, and the nurse told me I had breast cancer. That moment stretched on for eons. Anthony had walked back in the house just as the news was shared. In fact it was at that moment that I instantly decided I would not do anything about it…the call never occurred and life goes on. I really didn’t have time to alter anymore plans.
Upon looking into Anthony’s eyes, I know it was time to suit up once again. Only this time I would have to face my old friend breast cancer straight on. Not only did I have to endure the tough conversations with my family and close friends, I had to admit lying to my mom. WOW…how could life get so bad in an instance?
At that very moment, the realization hit me. What I asked for I had received. When I was witnessing my mom handle her treatments with such grace and seemingly ease, I had asked God that if anyone else in my family was going to get breast cancer to let it be me. I felt it would be easier for everyone, because I was constantly dealing with health issues and like my mom, I could still perform by any means necessary. I truly believed I could take care of myself and not burden any of my family. After all, no one was as much of a fighter as me. I had proven time and time again that no one could bounce back quite like me.
As it goes for us caregivers, there comes a time when we realize we cannot do all and be all for everyone. I'd been strong for everyone else, and now I had to learn how to concede. It was time to be strong for myself, but just like my mom had shown me several years earlier, I could not do it alone. The support I received from family and friends was overwhelming.
Today I am cancer-free, but I'm not done with breast cancer. I get it now, we are never done. And now my contribution is to talk about it for the sake of those out there who have been inducted into the breast cancer family. This time around, I am not only a force to be reckoned with, I am much wiser and understanding. Nobody’s journey is quite the same, but the commonalities and irregularities can be found in all of us. Therefore, I know it is most helpful to share my testimony and hopefully help someone make the burden slightly lighter. This time not so much as a caregiver, but more as a peer, a friend.
We Can Be Warriors
Yes, I Am A Survivor. I appreciate the movement's use of that word, and I love my friends I've met in my online breast cancer Survivor groups and various foundations I have had the pleasure of joining. But to be honest, I don't care for the word Survivor. I've been struggling with one thing or another since my first breath, and survival seems like it's just part of it. On the other end of the spectrum, survival to me also meant it was finished: I survived, I got past it and I'm over it. But of course, my Mom and many, many other precious people I have come to know have taught me this just isn't true with breast cancer. I now have a companion for life and I’m learning to embrace it.
So instead, I like to think of myself as a WARRIOR. Warriors have to constantly be vigilant and prepared. They educate and train themselves. They find multiple ways of accomplishing the same tasks. They are strong and brave and committed. The idea of being a fighter motivates me every day. It’s time for Beast Mode! You never know when you're going to wake to a battle, or when someone else is going to need you to remind them this battle is worth fighting for.