In 1968, I was a Bethpage High School graduate who had just gotten my driver’s license and who was looking forward to starting at Adelphi University in September.
I was working in my Uncle’s deli and don’t remember being upset in mid-August when Mom told me that she had to go into the hospital to have a lump removed from her breast. She had done that before. After a couple of days she would be home from the hospital and we could go on or annual pre-school shopping spree for school clothes and supplies.
This time it was different. Mom was not discharged from the hospital in just a few days. Her surgeon told my Dad that Mom had cancer and that he had performed a mastectomy. I knew about cancer because Grandpa, Mom’s dad, had died of lung cancer. I was nervous and scared, but so relieved when after a week or so Mom was discharged from the hospital.
In ‘68, the standard follow-up care for cancer was radiation. Dad switched to the night shift at Grumman so he could take Mom to the radiologist 5 days a week for cobalt treatments. Mom was so tired after each of the sessions. I know there were more times than not when all she wanted to do was stay in bed, but she didn’t. She got up each day, did what she could do, took interest in how my first days and weeks of college were going, and, with the help of her two sisters and Gram, made sure that our home ran as efficiently as always. After 4 weeks the treatments were over. I don’t remember there being another kind of follow-up at the time or additional doctor visits though I am sure there were many. I do remember the arm and muscle strengthening exercises she had to do—walking her hand up the wall and squeezing the tennis ball. Being at school all day, I didn’t know how she was reacting to her new self, but I can only imagine that there was much sadness and fear to deal with as part of the recovery from this kind of surgery. It was sometime later, probably years, before Mom started going for mammograms. I am not sure when that diagnostic testing started, but I know that with her history, her doctors recommended it. Each year the thought of the mammography unnerved her. She was afraid they would find something; that she would have cancer again. When the results came back negative, she would breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Until next year.”
During the next 30 plus years Mom spent time with her mother until Gram’s death in 1979. She helped me plan my 1982 wedding, and then looked after me when I had various surgeries from 1983 to 1993, plus did daily check-ins and major cooking when I had a terrible bout of pneumonia in 1994 just before her 75th birthday. She did all this without a care knowing that it was her place to look after those she loved even after having her aortic valve replaced at the age of 78.
Then in 2001 she felt a lump on her chest near her collarbone over her right breast. A mammogram did not show anything suspicious, but her history demanded a biopsy. Dad and I were sitting in the hospital waiting room when the surgeon told us that the lump Mom found was a fatty deposit but hidden underneath was a very small tumor that turned out to be an aggressive cancer. A mastectomy was scheduled as soon as possible.
At the age of 81 and 31 years after her first mastectomy, Mom had a second one. This time the hospital stay was just overnight. Mom was home for Christmas and had her first meeting with an oncologist, right after New Year’s in January 2002. Her oncologist was surprised with the length of time between recurrences, but assured Mom that there would be no radiation treatments and luckily, no chemotherapy either. Mom had numerous follow-up exams for several years and was given her release in 2005.
Despite two devastating cancer surgeries, caregiving became Mom’s primary focus from 2003 to 2007 during my Dad’s battle with Alzheimer’s. It took its toll on her, but she was determined to give Dad a life with his family in his last years.
This coming December she will celebrate her 91st birthday.