When first diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt a range of emotions including anger, terror, panic, sadness, grief — and the need to pray. But not in the way you might imagine. Rather than pray for my own life, my prayer went something like this: “Please don’t let anyone else in my family get cancer. Let it just be me.”
Not pleading for my own life might sound strange, but I figured the die were cast and I didn’t have complete control over the outcome. I was still in shock. And I reached acceptance pretty quickly, although I was plenty depressed because I was convinced I would die at a young age.
I didn’t want to die.
But I still felt more compelled to pray that my loved ones wouldn’t share my same cruel fate — whatever my outcome. Thus I sealed my pact with God. I would be the family’s sacrificial lamb, the horrible statistic, and my family would be safe. But today I fully realize this “pact” is an illusion. One cannot bargain life and death with God.
Yesterday, my mom told me a routine mammogram showed an abnormality in her left breast.
Understandably, she is rattled. I tried to calm her down — even though my mind was already racing down the catastrophic-thoughts highway.
After all, I know too much about breast cancer; yet I know absolutely nothing about this disease.
Instead, I told her rational somethings she could cling to: I said that whatever was found might be nothing at all, and the doctor is doing his job by closely monitoring her medical situation and ordering an ultrasound to further investigate the matter. I told her to try to live one day at a time and focus on the present, and there was no proof it was malignant. That going through medical tests was scary for everyone, and no one likes this kind of medical intrusion. I explained what an ultrasound was like. Finally, I praised her for being proactive and having the courage to go through these tests.
My mom looks to me for advice. To her, I represent the face of reason, although I know better. But now, during a time of potential crisis, I represent another face — the face of breast cancer.
During our conversation, she cried and said she wished I was with her in Florida during this difficult time, made even more difficult because my dad is being evaluated for his dementia. I felt bad. You see, in a little over a week, Ari and I are flying to New York to visit my family there; we hadn’t seen them in over a year and hadn’t even met my brother and sister-in-law’s one-year-old son. I was torn. I told my mom I would fly down to be with her and my dad in the near future. I wouldn’t abandon her. She seemed comforted.
When I got off the phone, my hands trembled for the rest of the day, and I felt like throwing up. Instead, I threw up a prayer: “Please don’t let my mom have cancer.”
There I go bargaining again.
And I thought back, feeling sorry for all the years I resented my mom after my diagnosis.
My parents are wonderful people, who love me and my brother deeply. However, they have not historically handled adversity well — especially my mom. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, she couldn’t bear to fly in for my surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. In fact, when my brother broke the news to them about me having cancer (I knew they’d fall apart and couldn’t handle being their psychologist when my world was falling apart), they couldn’t bear to call me that day. At the time, the grief of knowing they were unable support me the way I needed was more painful than knowing I had cancer.
My mom did apologize, and my parents did visit while I was recuperating from my first surgery, a surgery that my brother had flown in for. They also called every week. But for years I was closed-minded: I felt that they should have flown in for my treatments. Strangers taking care of me in the chemo room couldn’t understand how my own parents (and husband for that matter) couldn’t be there for me in my time of need and how I could be alone through all this trauma. I was jealous of cancer patients — even the ones worse off than me medically — whose loved ones were at their side in the chemo room.
And for years, I really didn’t accept my mom’s apology. I resented my parents, and I was angry. I felt they rejected me and I sarcastically called myself “The Untouchable,” because I felt so alone. But with great introspection and the passage of time, I realized that my parents loved me so much, they couldn’t cope with the pain of potentially losing me.
And an amazing thing happened: I forgave them.
And a kind miracle: my love and respect for them deepened. My mom talked more openly with me about what my illness meant to me. And in time, we all had a deep connection and a sound, healthy relationship with each other. And now, I can say with 100 percent certainty, that my parents mean the world to me and are my friends. Ari and I see them whenever we are able to.
All I can do at this point is hope for the best outcome possible. The word “benign” is becoming my favorite word. Whatever the outcome — good or not so good, however — I will support my parents and be there for them. They deserve all the kindness in the world.
I know too many people who have experienced the heartbreak of losing their moms to cancer and other illnesses. I don’t think I could handle this. I think it’s more difficult to be the one standing by an ill loved one than to be the one who is ill.
And now my mind is running at 100 miles of panic per hour.
And now I’m finished writing a post I never wanted to write.
Please feel free to share a time you felt supported or not supported during a serious illness.
How have you supported someone with a serious illness?
Any advice on how I can support my mom would be welcomed.