Never did we think we would share the bond of cancer. It’s certainly not something any mother wants to have in common with her child. And I know (now that I am a parent myself) that it must have been harder for her to hear MY declaration of cancer even more so than her own.
She was a trailbreaker for me. Like the sled that gets sent ahead to smooth and mark the trail of the Iditarod (I have dogsledding on the brain currently), my mother laid tracks for me. She was diagnosed a few years before I was, and I watched as she dealt with her illness. On her “off” weeks from chemo, when she felt well enough, she always came to visit. I think she needed to see some of her grandchildren and remember why she was going through the difficult treatments. She was Nana, she was Mom… she wasn’t a cancer patient.
I had never known anyone with cancer. I had never seen what happens to someone during chemo. And, to be fair, I only saw her after the worst was over. Just like I did, when the time came, she retreated to her bedroom during the worst days and kept it a private matter. But on those alternate weeks, I watched my mother’s head go bald. I watched her body go hairless. I watched her weaken, and suffer. I saw her remove her wig once the children had gone to bed and put on a green turban to finally give her head a break after a long day.
But I also saw something else in my mother. I saw the unfailing determination to be strong. I saw her desire to protect those around her. I saw her selfless devotion to family, and the importance of putting on a brave face. Most of all, I saw the smile. The gorgeous smile that lights up a room, always with bright red lipstick. My mother was extra beautiful to me in her display of courage, conviction, and unwavering persistence.
Neither of us knew that she was actually teaching me by example; within a year of her hair growing back in, mine would be coming out. We had no way of knowing we would soon start trading books, articles, and reports on advances in oncology.
I have learned many lessons from my mother. But for today, the one I am thinking about is one of the most valuable. You never know who’s watching you. You never know what’s around the corner. You never know when it’s going to be YOU… when it’s going to be your turn.
Trailbreakers are all around us. We just need to watch and pay attention. We need to learn lessons where we can. We need to have reserves we can tap into. Like a fallout shelter stocked for an emergency, we need to have people we can call on, experiences we can draw on to reassure us when crisis strikes. My mother did that for me. When it came to be my turn, I wasn’t ready; I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t strong or brave or tough. But I did know I could get through it. After all, she did, and just knowing that fact helped me. I got tougher. I got braver. I got stronger. But having watched someone close to me go though some of the same experiences meant a lot.
I don’t think of myself as a role model. But I also know the reality: some of my friends will eventually get cancer. And I hope that my experiences can help them get through it, and see that it can be done. One reason I have decided to be so open and public about my life is that I wish I had been able to connect to someone my age, and hear what she had to say. Cancer’s impact on me– the changes in my life, my body, my relationships with my spouse, children, and friends– cannot be underestimated. Two years after my initial diagnosis, I still have lots to work through.
“If you want to know what the road ahead is like, ask someone who is on her way back home.” I have been there, and feel it’s my duty to tell what I’ve seen.