Breast cancer awareness month always sneaks up on me and I always try to make time to think about the thousands of women, and men, who have lost the battle against the dreaded c-word. Mentally, I also berate myself for not having spent enough time in the last year concerned about breast health.
The reason for this is not random, in 2014 I lost my mother to breast cancer after a ten-year battle which involved a whole lot of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, blood work, hospital visits, oncologists, nurses and more. This year marked the fifth anniversary of her passing and for the first time, I’m forcing myself to once again think about this illness that for so long ruled my life.
The C Word
According to CANSA one in 27 women are at a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Another alarming fact is that many women are already diagnosed under the age of 40. My mother was diagnosed just before her 40th birthday and although a family history of breast cancer does increase your risk, the truth is that all women are at risk.
Every piece of literature I could lay my hands on said more or less the same thing. Early detection is key! This includes monthly self-examinations, regular screenings (I visit the gynaecologist annually and always stress the fact that I have a family history of breast cancer) and mammograms from 40 onwards.
I always use this great video by CANSA to do the self-exam:
As you can imagine, after my mother passed away I freaked out about what my own risk is. This was during the same time that Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy and I also opted for testing if I have the BRCA1 gene which gave Jolie an 87% chance of developing breast cancer.
The whole process is very interesting – and you can read about it here – but looking back I’m actually shocked that they allowed a grief-stricken 22-year-old to undergo the process. You do get some genetic counselling before actually going for the test, and I was cleared of the gene, but if they did find the gene in my DNA, I would’ve had to make a choice that would have affected the rest of my life.
My mom and the ladies I met with the same condition throughout her illness were some of the bravest people I know. Apart from having to face a possible mastectomy or hysterectomy, you also have to deal with losing your hair, constant tiredness, extreme nausea and more. The illness very often robs you of everything that makes you a woman.
Even in periods of remission, the weight of her cancer, whether it was there at the present moment or not, loomed over her. She lived in constant fear of her cancer returning and when it eventually did come back, it came in full force. It spread to her lungs and became lung cancer – she had never smoked a day in her life. It soon moved to her bones and she was so fragile that our small dog fractured a bone in her arm by jumping up to be petted.
It was at this point that she refused further treatment. The chemotherapy made her extremely ill and the cancer count was not reducing substantially any more. Her last few days are a blur to me, but it was as if she left her body way before they rushed her to the hospital for the last time.
My mother was extremely religious and she firmly believed that cancer was a family illness. Not in the way you are thinking… It’s an illness that brought her family together. It gave her time to fully experience every second she had with us.
She made my matric farewell such an extravagant event because I think she knew she’d never be at my wedding. She threw me the most amazing 21st birthday party to make up for all of those she’d miss in the coming years. She wrote letters to everyone and she personally assigned some of her friends to look after my brother, father and me. The other day I opened a trunk and found baby clothing and gifts with notes that clearly stated that it was to go to her first grandchildren.
She had time to do all these things, she felt blessed and for the longest time I’ve been so angry about having lost her that I refused to understand this, but lately, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that she had already known for years that she was going to die.
Living with someone with cancer, and eventually outliving them, makes you a survivor. Not a cancer survivor and I don’t think there’s really a word for it, but breast cancer always leaves these kinds of survivors. I believe that it is our responsibility, more than others, to preach topics like early detection, avoiding carcinogens and exercising regularly. And I hope this article prompts you to go for an exam, or at least do a self-exam.