22 Aug 2014
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Life and Death and Lessons Learned

Things my mother taught me come back to me during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

Life and Death and Lessons Learned

I wish we didn’t need a Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I am personally, painfully aware of breast cancer and its impact on a family. My mom, Frances Watts, was just 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. My father had just died in a boating accident the year prior, so the cancer diagnosis was quite a blow.

What I remember most is the silence. Back then; it was an almost unmentionable disease. No one seemed to want to talk about it. There was almost a shame to having cancer, as if people had done something wrong to catch it.  People only spoke of “cancer” in hushed whispers.

Today, that has thankfully changed. We know that cancer is a disease. What you do, or do not do, does not cause the disease. Maintaining a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle gives you the best odds of prevention but some get the disease with no family history or indications.

October is when Breast Cancer Awareness month is recognized. It is a good time for all women to think of their own health, to do breast self-exams and to schedule mammograms. Patch will be running a series of articles all month promoting Breast Cancer Awareness.

I am sharing my personal story because it was so different for my mom. I am glad that people today seem to have much more support and guidance when fighting this vicious disease.

Mom didn’t have a lot of options when she was diagnosed, as I recall. I was only 12, but I remember her coming home after her mastectomy, and how sick she was after full rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments often seemed worse than the disease itself.

Some people faced with such grueling medical issues understandably turn bitter and angry. My mom went the other way. She learned to cherish every day, every visit from a friend, every small improvement.

After that rough first year post-cancer, we thought we were in the clear. She once again enjoyed dinners with friends, weekly hunts for antique furniture and Hummel figurines. And much to the dismay of her teenage daughter, she started dating again.

The cancer came back and had spread into her bones, causing her incredible pain. A new doctor ordered more radiation, against my mom’s protests that she had already received the full dose. Patients were not always allowed to have a voice in their own care, and the fact that she was a woman I’m sure didn’t help.

She got the additional radiation. It didn’t halt the cancer. But did damage a nerve in her spine that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

That changed everything. Suddenly, cancer was not our biggest problem anymore. How to get up the steps into the front door was, and how to use the narrow bathroom was, and on and on…

What remained was Mom’s unfailing optimism. She always said, “There are others who have had worse situations.” I thought, “Who??” but I knew she was right. It is all a matter of perspective.

So we kept moving forward. We added a ramp up to the front door; we renovated a closet in her bedroom into a makeshift bathroom. Friends and ladies from church brought over countless casseroles. We had hand controls installed in a van we bought so Mom could maintain a sense of independence.

That was all the easy stuff. The hard parts were the visits to the doctor where they knew the cancer was taking over. When the pain overwhelmed her small frame. When the bad days started to outnumber the good.

Mom fought bravely, with a smile on her face, for more than two years after her second bout of cancer. She died a week before Christmas in 1986.

What I remember most of all that time was not the struggles or the pain, but her joy and strength and perseverance. How she was so delighted when anyone came to visit. How she wanted to know what was going on in the world outside her hospital room.

Her lessons were simple, yet strong. Laugh as much as possible. Cry when you have to. Treasure the good people around you. Have faith in God, and friends and family. Breast Cancer Awareness month reminds me to appreciate those around me, to focus on my own health and to keep moving forward.

Marcia Sagendorph is an Associate Regional Editor for Patch.com.

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