I don’t wear much jewelry, just a simple silver band on my wedding ring finger. I am obviously not married so I often get questioned on why I always wear the ring on that finger in particular. The ring is simple; it has an “Om” engraved on the outside and my mother’s name on the inside. Next to her name, the date 05/04/17 is engraved. While I consider this day to be the worst day of my life, I choose to carry it with me everywhere I go. On May 4, 2017, my mother was diagnosed with Triple Positive Breast Cancer.
When I found out, I wasn’t sure what was an appropriate way to react. How is a 14-year old supposed to make sense of finding out that her mother might die? My parents were insistent on keeping the diagnosis a secret, meaning I couldn’t tell anyone about it, especially my friends. I was to go back to school the next day and pretend like nothing had happened. Pretending like nothing had happened meant timed mental breakdowns in the school bathroom during passing periods between classes and trying not to think about it in class.
I could not have been further from “fine”.
It also meant creating bogus explanations for why my eyes were so red all day long. “I’m fine, I just have really bad allergies right now”. “I’m fine, I just had a fight with my mother last night”. “I’m fine, it’s just friend drama”. I could not have been further from “fine”; internally, I wanted to polish off a whole bottle of vodka to feel numb. Often, my hair would fall out and my nose would randomly start bleeding in response to the immense amount of stress I was under.
Eventually, my friends found out and things started to get better. Some stayed with me all night long, some were caught up in their own depression after finding out, and some distracted me from thinking about it. I started to drift away from being depressed about the situation to being enraged about it. I channeled all the anger I felt towards cancer into my schoolwork and maxed out my GPA for the term. The anger pushed me to work harder and stronger so that I could study to give back to the doctors that were saving my mother’s life.
I took up a position at the local hospital to volunteer on the oncology floor and the pathology lab to detect cancer. By learning the inner-workings of my mother’s disease in the lab and serving other cancer patients, I felt a closeness with her that I could not feel after watching her get progressively sicker. I learned how to read lab reports and interpret medical scans so that I could look at hers when I got home and explain them to our family to provide us with a temporary illusion of security.
A last-minute cancellation of someone else’s appointment may have saved her life.
By the time sophomore year rolled around, I had grown so accustomed to hearing the word “cancer”, I decided that I was going to make everyone around me hear about it as well. With the help of three of my friends, I started a Breast Cancer awareness campaign to honor my mom’s fight with Breast Cancer and to raise awareness for Breast Cancer in the South Asian community. It is not uncommon for South Asian women to neglect their own health while managing their jobs and the household. In fact, my mother put off going to the doctor to get the lump in her breast for months herself.
A last-minute cancellation of someone else’s appointment may have saved her life as she was able to get her scans done earlier than expected because of the last-minute opening. To prevent this from occurring in other families, my friends and I spent months going door-to-door in predominantly Asian neighborhoods to teach families how to self-check for tumors. We hosted bake sales, attended various events, met with politicians, and hosted a radio show to answer questions about Breast Cancer. In doing so, I was able to feel another sense of closeness with my mother, despite not being able to physically be with her at all times.
On November 2, 2017, my mother was declared cancer-free and officially in remission. While she was not even halfway done with her treatment, her body was able to fight the cancer off much fast than expected. Today, she is the business director of three YMCAs in our hometown and continues to serve the community by speaking with current cancer patients to inspire them.
This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and coincidently marks three years of my mother being in remission. While she no longer has cancer, it’s still a part of our family as we continue to raise awareness for the disease together.
My mother’s diagnosis may have been the hardest thing I have ever had to endure, but I am glad that my family and I were able to turn it into a means to make a change in a community that desperately needed the wake-up call.