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.

Love Wellness

When I lost my health insurance, I went into panic mode – until this clinic saved me

I am privileged to say that I’ve always had health insurance, so I’ve always been able to schedule appointments with an OB/GYN, receive birth control, and get checked regularly for STDs. I was on my parents’ insurance plan, and fortunately, my dad’s union always provided excellent insurance that I’d been able to use, no matter where I lived or what kind of medical needs I had. But when my dad lost his job and subsequently lost his insurance, I went into panic mode.

I was due for a gyno checkup but had not yet scheduled it. Luckily, I have an IUD that’s effective for another year, so I was covered on the birth control front. But I still worried about needing pap smears, STD tests, breast exams, and my general reproductive health. A couple days after our insurance expired, I called my local Planned Parenthood.

Living in the ass-backward state of Indiana, I knew that several Planned Parenthood clinics in the state had closed in the past several years, and I wondered if the constant attacks on reproductive rights by Republicans across the country would prevent me from receiving the resources I needed.

Luckily, there are two Planned Parenthoods within 30 minutes from my house, and when I called one of the clinics, the administrator was helpful and told me I could schedule an appointment immediately. When I explained that I didn’t have insurance and that I was only working part-time, she referred me to a different Planned Parenthood, explaining the other clinic charged patients on an income-based scale.

Feeling relieved, I scheduled an appointment for the following week. When I arrived, the staff treated me with respect and kindness. The nurses and doctor were efficient, professional, and knowledgeable. And although it was my first time at a Planned Parenthood, I quickly realized that the doctor who saw me was more professional than some of the gynos I had seen while I had insurance.

She addressed all of my concerns, including my worry that I may need to return to Planned Parenthood to replace my IUD if I didn’t have insurance by the following year. She assured me that her clinic removed and inserted several types of IUDs, usually at little or no cost. She explained how often I needed a pap smear and when I should seek a pelvic exam.

The staff asked me, in confidence, important questions that I don’t remember other gynecologists asking me: “Have you been raped or sexually assaulted?” “Has anyone abused you or threatened you?” and other inquiries that dealt with consent and violence. While some people might find these questions invasive or difficult to answer, I recognized their importance and their role in opening up communication between patient and doctor.

Reproductive health isn’t just inspecting the vagina; it’s including discussions about sexual violence, mental health, and exploitation.

At the end of the appointment, the staff evaluated my income and told me my checkup was free. They told me they would call if any of my tests came back abnormal and offered me a paper bag of condoms. Basically, it was a great day.

Although it was far from my first time at a gynecologist’s office, it was an experience I won’t forget. I didn’t come into the office with a life-threatening condition or needing an abortion. I arrived for a simple exam to ensure my wellness.

But in this horrific political and cultural landscape, women face barriers to even the most basic reproductive health services. Politicians clamoring to strip women of their reproductive rights, the Republicans in Congress trying to shred the Affordable Care Act, a president who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and uninformed pro-birth supporters pushing for “personhood” legislature all impede the right to reproductive wellness.

We are living in a climate where hostility toward women and their decisions about their bodies is ever-present. More importantly, we are living in a world where having no access to reproductive and sexual health is a reality for women of color, immigrant women, uninsured and/or impoverished women, the LGBTQ+ community, and non-English speaking women.

But Planned Parenthood offers a place where these individuals can receive essential medical care with dignity.

Afterwards, I took a moment to thank my doctor and tell her how grateful I was for Planned Parenthood’s services.

When I told her that I was scared about the future of the clinics, she looked me in the eye and smiled. Then she shook her head, saying, “Don’t worry, we aren’t going anywhere. We will always be here.”