Mind Mental Health Health

How my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis changed my life

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.

Family Life

My mom survived breast cancer. Am I next?

On average, an estimated 15.2% of new cancer cases in the United States are women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That means that 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. 

These statistics are indicative of families, touched eternally by a cancer that is more than just a disease – it is linear. Breast cancer often weaves a thread, mangled in fate and fear, through mothers, daughters, and sisters alike. The survivors among them are the superheroes of nearly every generation of women, powering through all of the anxiety, body disfiguring surgeries or treatments, and impromptu decision-making associated with the onset of such an illness. They take this disease and nip it in the bud, almost passively, acknowledging the unforgiving weight that will forever be weighing down their bodies and minds. 

In some cases, before these women can even think about what comes next, they are sewed up, stripped, and shaved. Left without any sensation in their breast area after a mastectomy, and feeling less and less whole with every visit to the oncologist. It is hard for most women to even feel at home in their bodies anymore. 

In February of 2017, my mother sat in a bleak and claustrophobic doctor’s office for her regular mammogram visit and heard the dreadful words that every woman lives in fear of, “I think we’re going to need to take a second exam. There may be cancer.” 

There was. 

She has told me that she spent most of her life, 38 years to be exact, in terror of what was surely to come. When my mother was 17 years old, the same age that I had been when she was diagnosed, her mother passed away after a long and debilitating battle with breast cancer. Afterward, this disease became a constant threat. So, in some ways, her diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else.

For me, however, it was excruciating. I had a hard time fathoming the enormity of it. Often, I would find myself drenched in hot and burning tears, unable to put into words what I was feeling. I was incoherent and unable to be comforted. I really hated it when people tried to comfort me, too—it felt condescending. I didn’t want to need them.

But, at the same time, I wasn’t even close to being the strong person that I presented to the world. I was falling hard—and fast. Most days, I would go to school or hang out with my friends, but the entire time I felt as if there were a million knives stabbing my chest at any given moment, and I couldn’t help it. Sometimes, I even liked feeling the pain. If my mom had to suffer, then, I thought, so did I. 

Years later I’m able to articulate my thoughts a little more clearly. I was terrified, desperate, and I didn’t know where to turn. So much was happening all the time and I was grieving my old self. That is, the self that hadn’t yet felt such complete and sunken remorse. There was this urgency to do everything right. In a situation like that, there’s no room for mistakes and I was incredibly nervous that I would mess up. Or maybe I was nervous that something would mess me up. Either way, I changed a lot that year. 

Unfortunately, our story is not an uncommon one. 

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, or daughter has been diagnosed. In addition, women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of breast cancer than women who do not carry the gene. 

My mom is thankfully, and gracefully, in remission today. Her fight seemed, on the outside, to be continuous and suffocating. But, she is a survivor, bold and vivacious, in all of her glory. She has the scars and the strength to prove it, too. 

I am well aware that my risk of this disease is high. But, I am also confident that this does not mean that it is a death sentence. Regardless of being only 21 years old, I am diligent in conducting breast exams on myself at least once a month in an attempt to detect any early warning signs of breast cancer. What I search for is any abnormal lumps or changes in the breast tissue/skin. 

The good news is that with advancing technologies the survival rate of people diagnosed with breast cancer is steadily increasing, even though the number of people getting sick remains stagnant. 

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying, but breast cancer for me feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I won’t be able to stop being overwhelmed by this sharp and unrelenting nervousness until it is completely out of my system. And we all know that there is only one way for that to happen. 

For now, I am trying to focus on what I am able to control. Breast cancer is certainly not one of those things. But, I am in control of my mindset. While it is important for me not to let my guard down, at some point I have to just let go and let it be. I trust that fate will run its course. 

I come from a long legacy of confident and courageous women, all beautiful and bountiful in their own right. So, it would be a disservice if I did not take their wisdom and hold onto it tightly. I mean, I watched while my own mother boldly stared her fears directly in the face. She never skipped a beat, not even for a second. Her resilience against a disease that is otherwise overbearing is nothing short of inspiring and I am so proud of her. Because of her, I am starting to think that maybe I can handle it too, that maybe I can be as brave as her, when and if the day comes. 

I am not alone in my fear, although it may seem like it sometimes. I am one of millions living and feeling these same anxieties at full volume, so I must not let it overcome me. Instead, I have to remind myself to be introspective and to keep moving forward.