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My Mother and Breast Cancer

Posted 4/18/2016

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  My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 62, just weeks before re-marrying. My father had been dead for two and a half years, and I was still raw with grief. She was marrying a widower whom they had both known for decades; in fact, he was my godfather. He was also a fine and solid man, and she was absolutely a woman who did much better married than alone

  I was also 8 months pregnant and less than six months away from shepherding my mother in law through breast cancer. She had chosen to come to Boston for treatment, so I had experienced a close view of her very difficult experience. As you would suspect, this confluence of events meant that my hormones were raging, and my head was spinning. 

  My mother, the consummate WASP lady, barely flinched. I can only assume that she had private moments of pain, but no one else saw them. She went through surgery and radiation and six months of chemo with dignity and no complaints. In 1980, the radiation boost at the end of treatment was done in the hospital with implanted radioactivity, and she was admitted for that phase the very day that I went into labor. While I was laboring, an anesthesiologist came into the room; I quickly told her to leave, I was dong fine with my Lamaze breathing. She said: "Oh no, I am not here for you. I am about to put your mother out and she asked me to come find out how you are doing first."

  Thirteen years later, I was diagnosed with my first breast cancer. The pathology report was identical to my mother's, all the way to the single node with micro-mets. I was slightly reassured by the fact that she was doing fine, the breast cancer long in her rear-view mirror.

  I don't think we ever talked about this shared experience. I am stunned as I type those words, but it is true. By 1993, I had been an oncology social worker for almost fifteen years and was fluent in the language of affect. She was still, and always would be, a staunch "pull up your socks" and "just do the right thing" kind of woman,and there seemed to be no translation.

  This remarkable essay from The New Yorker reduced me to tears. It is powerful in and of itself, but surely there is long unfinished mother-daughter business, now long silenced.

Afterlives: My Mother’s Breast Cancer, and My Own

For most of my life, I had only one memory of my mother’s first mastectomy: On the day she returned home from the hospital, she took my little brother and me into the bathroom and lifted up her shirt. She was forty, he was six, I was ten, and the three of us looked at her reflection in the mirror rather than directly at her chest. The thick red scar where her right breast had been was a violent surprise, like a gash in an oil portrait of a mother and her children. She explained surgery, and cancer, and remission, and we asked questions. Then we all went out for pizza.

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