In 1968 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46 and given a prognosis of only a few months survival, the words breast and cancer were rarely if ever spoken. Barely audible as these words were at the time, the implication they had together was clear…so much so; that I can still remember the first time I didn’t hear them. That was the day of my mother’s surgery and it began as most every summer day did in the tranquil Jericho neighborhood where I grew up. As a shy 8-year old tomboy with perpetual grass stains on my knees, I ran up the stairs of our split-level to my bedroom. The phone rang and my grandmother answered it in the kitchen. My father was on the other end of the line. There was a moment of complete silence and then my grandma began to weep unrestrained. As I listened to her through the crack of my door, I tried to make sense of what she was saying. When she abandoned English and spoke to my father in Italian, I realized something was very wrong. After my grandmother hung up the phone, she took out the worn, black prayer book in her apron pocket and sat down in a dimly lit corner. As she rocked the chair, she quietly read from the book and absorbed the shock of learning that her daughter-in-law was terminally ill. But my mother had other plans. With three young children to raise, she returned home determined to see her two boys into adulthood, and her youngest and only daughter graduate from college. Defying the odds stacked against her, she lived for 12 more years, through Cobalt treatments, hospital stays and a multitude of operations. Later as a patient of pioneering physician Dr. Min Chiu Li, my mother became one of the first recipients of a ground-breaking cancer treatment called chemotherapy.
Yet breast cancer was still barely mentioned and there were no support groups or hotlines to call at two o’clock in the morning, or pink ribbons of. There were no pink ribbons, not just yet.
Still I wonder to this day, how lonely it must have been for my mother to confront this illness in such an solitary place. She remained steadfast in her fight to live and during her 12 years of survivorship, I as daughter and often caregive, learned more about life through my mother’s driven certainty to live, rather than to exist with the certainty of dying. One of her biggest concerns was that her sickness was holding me back. She’d say, “Go out and have fun. This is your time.” As the years passed, my mother’s battle with breast cancer shaped my life and gave me a lifetime appreciation of what was essential. In the spring of 1981 my mother was 58 and I, a soon-to-be college graduate, when discussion about breast cancer was starting to be audible. My mother had achieved her wish to see her children into adulthood and now her battle with breast cancer was approaching its end. Admitted to the hospital one final time, I commuted each Thursday by bus from my upstate school so that I could be by mother’s bedside until the following Monday. Two weeks before her passing, my mom took on a serious tone as we talked openly about breast cancer. She told me not live my life in fear of it, asserting that I always remain mindful of my physical well-being and to go for routine exams and screenings when the appropriate time came. She compelled me to verbally promise that I would. That promise later saved my life. By 1994 I was married and had two daughters of my own and went for a baseline mammogram. Breast cancer was growing more prevalent. Pink ribbons began to appear on posters, in doctor’s offices, at check-out counters. My then 6 year-old daughters learned early on about what they signified, along with light-hearted stories about their grandmother. After age 40 I went for annual screenings which most went well. In late November 2009, at age 50, an ultrasound picked up ‘something’ suspicious. After the biopsy my radiologist phoned me with the results saying, “Julia, it is something.” “It is something?” I responded. “Yes,” he said, “it is.”
It is nearly a year post diagnosis and I am a week shy of my 51st birthday. My breast cancer was caught at an early stage and removed with no sign of metastasis. Still, it was an aggressive type that needed to be treated as such. Thus the year 2010, the one I often prefer to forget, has been comprised of rigorous treatments of chemo, radiation and targeted therapy. Sitting in my recliner with a warm blanket swaddled around me, as I receive treatment and the IV flows from the bag, I look out the window at Sloan and see the brilliant colors of the new season. I marvel at how far breast cancer treatment has come through awareness, research, and medicine and support networks. There lies the hope of days and years to come and the thought of living for the day, and of the bond between mother and daughter. It's been a long road, but I'm a survivor and although I no longer have perpetual grass stains on my knees, I know how to fight. I learned from my mother.