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My breast cancer is not just about me as I discovered when my then fourteen-year-old daughter decided to break her silence about it. In her own way, on her Facebook wall, and on World Cancer Day 2012. Thus, on this day designated for speaking up and out, focusing on how everyone – as a collective or individually – can do their part to reduce this global burden of cancer –  I share with you her words and mine from February 4, 2012 . . .

The Real Warrior in our House

I didn’t know about a World Cancer Day. Until today, I’d known only about Breast Cancer Awareness October when the world turns pink for an entire month, so when I detected the lump on my breast on October 30, I should have been grateful for having made it until the end of the pinkest month, blithely unaware that cancer had come calling. Since then, I have encountered more metaphors of war in breast cancer’s literature than I ever found in my collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and I am uncomfortable. Within the context of breast cancer, I show up – albeit reluctantly – for every appointment, procedure, and surgery.  As a cancer patient, I am doing what is expected. I am being treated. At best, I am obedient. Not battling. Not a warrior in pink.

I cannot say the same for my darling girl.  Just a heartbeat ago, she was so tiny, asleep and swaddled, snug in the space between the crook of her daddy’s arm and the tips of his fingers. Safe and secure.

Then, too soon, fourteen and tall, impersonating “strong and stoic,” leaning on her beloved dad and he on her as they wait for surgeons bearing good tidings. Neither feels safe nor secure. Squaring up with false bravado, she confronts the wild fear that her mother might die yet balks at the notion of wearing the “kid with the sick mom” mantel. She does not want her teachers to know about it in case they might feel sorry for her and give her a good grade out of sympathy.  Mostly, she doesn’t want her friends to feel awkward around her, to tiptoe as if on egg-shells, afraid to say “cancer.” A quick study, she has grown keenly aware of the pink stuff of breast cancer, confounded by “I love boobie bracelets” casually wrapped around teenage wrists when her instinct is to defend me because I was unable, technically, to “keep a breast.

Remember fourteen? A time for rebellion, for rolling your eyes at your mother’s taste in clothes or music because she was your mother for God’s sake and therefore “so embarrassing.” Fourteen was for pushing boundaries and buttons and for experimenting with make-up and myriad ways to style your hair or sign your name -with hearts instead of dots above “i’s”.

For my girl, this rite of passage is forever marred by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, before which she didn’t have to feel as guilty about perfectly acceptable and anticipated acts of rebellion. It is unforgivably unfair. But that’s the nature of breast cancer, isn’t it? Unfair. Lest I forget how it has interrupted her life, I am considering today the first time my daughter spoke of the cancer that entered our home like a thief in the night.

I didn’t know – and I’m sure I still don’t –  the extent to which my cancer has shaken my beautiful daughter, stirred a fear that others dear to her may be at risk.  So when I read the note she posted on her Facebook page on February 4, 2012, World Cancer Day,  I realized she needed to tell – to share with anyone who would listen, in one fell swoop, that cancer had come calling and that her mom was sick, to tell them that being aware means you have to actually do something.

She is the only warrior here.

She’s my hero.

Here’s her note:

"In honor of World Cancer Day and my mom, I’m telling the truth … Each and every one of you reading this note, know this: you are important to me. And I don’t ever want to lose you. Please be aware. Do not think that just because you’re you, breast cancer won’t harm you. Infect you. Frighten your whole family. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. You can’t escape from it. And my mom, my dad, and I had to face up to that harsh reality. On November 11th of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She told me everything her doctor had told her. About how she had three tumors, and how they had been probably hiding there for five to seven years. Three tumors. Three of them, just sitting in there for all that time, never to be found by her mammograms because they were hidden so well in her tissue. Fortunately, two of the three were benign, meaning they would not hurt her. They were not cancerous. However, one of them was a cancer. Malignant.  My mother’s right breast had a cancerous tumor. But my mom had cancer. My mom had cancer. #Mymomhadcancer. I didn’t hear much more of what she said.  After she said “tumor” and that only “two out of three” were benign, it was hard to hear anything else. All I could say was, “But you’re going to be okay…. right?” I asked that question maybe four times in a row. I remember later on she and my dad told me about the next doctor’s appointment, during which she would find out which surgery was best for her.  A lumpectomy or a mastectomy. It sounded like she was hoping for a lumpectomy, which would only remove the tumor. It sounded simpler, but it also meant radiation. Radiation is nasty. A mastectomy means removal of a whole breast. Soon I found out my mom’s treatment required a mastectomy. I would be out of school for a week.

That week, I stayed with my mom’s best friend, Amanda. Amanda is like our own family; she has known me ever since I was little. I stayed at her house once before, when my dad had major heart surgery. Now again, I stayed with her while my mom was going through surgery. Seven and a half hours. An entire school day of waiting. Then my dad – who waited the whole seven and a half hours in the hospital – called to tell me the news. My mom was okay. The surgeons were very happy with the results of not only the removal of the tumor, but the reconstruction of her entire breast.

I remember seeing her in the ICU, when she woke up from the surgery. Her skin was so white, as pale as Boo Radley‘s. Her normally inky blue eyes now reminded me of a colorless sky. I cried at the sight of her. She looked like my mom, only dead. She had been given lots of morphine and so much other medicine, so she was way beyond groggy. Out of it. And then she was able to smile. She squeezed my hand, and she asked me what day it was . . . four times. Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday. I cried. My dad cried. He wiped his eyes on his shirt. We just stood there crying, rejoicing that my mom was going to be alright.

After removing her original breast and the cancer, her surgeons used skin and tissue and fat from her abdomen and molded it into the shape of a new breast. It was amazing! Today, her reconstructed breast looks almost identical to the other one. Made from her own skin, it looks fine. Just a bit bruised. But those bruises will fade, and this cancer will become just a bad memory. Unfortunately, we still have some healing to do. There’s a large scar across her abdomen, and it hurts her to stand up straight. If she lifts her right arm too high, it hurts. Then there are the tubes and the three surgical drains. Attached to my mom were three long tubes which then attached to what looked like little plastic grenades. Every day, I’d help drain the bloody fluid from them and record how much on a chart. Two have been removed, now there’s only one drain left, attached to a tube from a hole under her right arm. And then there’s always the fear that the cancer may return. Yes, her cancer was removed, but maybe there was some that the doctors couldn’t find and it could scare us again. It could invade my mother’s body once more. It could invade anybody. Which is why I’m begging: get yourself checked out. Find out your breast density. Do self-exams. Please. And it’s not just women. Men can get it too. SO if you’re a guy and you’re wondering why I tagged you in this, there’s your reason. So please. My mom discovered her cancer before it had spread into her lymph nodes. She got lucky, because she found the lump by accident and because her doctor made her get an ultrasound. She learned just in time that her negative mammograms had missed the cancer.

Many women, just like my mom, never even check their own breasts, even though they have been told over and over. It is so important to know what our breasts normally feel like, so we can notice when they change. So please take the steps to know your breasts, to know your body!"

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Family, friend & supporter
Paul Kelsin and his mother
Paul Kelsin
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