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.

Hair Beauty Lookbook

If you’re dealing with hair loss, don’t worry – you aren’t the only one

If you went by what you saw in Hollywood and ads, you’d think that hair loss was a problem specific to cis men.

Commercials for hair loss products are generally geared towards men. When it comes to movies and TV shows, it’s not at all taboo to feature male characters who are bald or have gray or thinning hair. In essence, the fact that men often have to go through losing their hair is accepted as part of reality.

But society rarely applies the same standards for women.

For the most part, women onscreen consistently appear with thick, flowing locks, sometimes varying in length or color but nearly always looking fresh from the salon. In most cases, the actors who play these female characters are wearing hair extensions to make their hair look impossibly full. That’s on top of the hours and large sums of money spent on various treatments for their original strands.

You would be very hard-pressed to find a female character who is bald or has close-cropped hair on television.

When they do appear, the portrayals are usually tragic, with women losing their hair to severe illness, or shaving it off in an act of rebellion. Something as mundane as natural hair loss, though?

Absolutely unheard of.

Yet the truth of the matter is that about a third of all women will experience hair loss during their lifetime. For most, it’s the same type that men tend to experience: androgenetic alopecia, commonly called ‘male pattern baldness’ (which should tell you how much more men are prioritized in this discussion). Dermatologists have developed a system to identify the types of female pattern baldness that exist.

Certainly, cis men tend to wear their hair shorter, so it can be more noticeable when their scalps appear sparse.

Women usually experience hair loss differently, with thinning taking place at the parting and hair at the temples slowly receding. As you can probably tell, the differences in how alopecia manifests between genders appear not to be biologically based but due to social norms. The problem is that femme-presenting people don’t usually have the option of owning their thinning hair the way men can.

Covering up these issues is less of a freely made choice and more of a social mandate.

In my own life, I’ve known many people who struggle with thinning or damaged hair. For the women experiencing hair loss, the experience seemed even more difficult than that of the men’s.

Femininity is so closely tied to hair; a huge part of performing womanhood is about maintaining one’s physical appearance. Hair is an essential component of that performance. That’s undoubtedly reflected in how common insults about receding hairlines and unkempt hair are these days.

My loved ones have experienced hair loss for a multitude of reasons: exam stress, aging, eating disorders, and various mental and physical illnesses.

For my part, during past periods of severe depression, I have found it very exhausting to take proper care of my hair. When I couldn’t muster up the energy to do so, it usually culminated in clumps of my hair gradually falling out. Despite all of the emotional upheaval I had gone through, during recovery periods I would find myself bemoaning the damage to my hair.

Even now, I am sometimes plagued with insecurity over the way my hair appears.

Almost unconsciously, I’ll find myself worrying over whether it’s noticeably thin or damaged. I don’t make an active choice to think so negatively – it’s a result of social conditioning. After all, mainstream media and society taught me and so many other women during our childhoods that hair is intrinsic to a woman’s being.

Elders in my Bengali family would gently spout idioms like, “A woman’s hair is her greatest asset.”

Of course, it’s great to be proud of your appearance, and in some communities, hair is tied to important cultural traditions and rites that invaders tried to stamp out.

But if we accept that our hair – part of our appearance – is our greatest asset, then we’re buying right into a world of self-hatred and sorrow. That’s not the future  I want to be a part of – no matter how much hair I lose.

Love Life Stories Wellness

I lost my beautiful hair while I was sick, but it made me fight even harder to survive

Laying in bed – nearly lifeless – I often wondered what would’ve happened had my life not turned out this way. 

Had I not been struck by whatever horrid illness this was – had I not lost out on so much. I wondered what it would’ve been like to actually attend my last year in college with my friends like I had my first two – to do more internships, get experience, plan a future and have a life.

These thoughts used to haunt me and run in my mind constantly when I was sick. And I was quite sick. I had to drop a semester in college, I lost 26 kg of weight, and among other things, I lost nearly all my hair.

My hair was one of my most prized possessions prior to my illness. 

It was my everything, in a way. I was insecure about a lot of things- my face, my body and my skin being a few of them, but my hair was always perfect.

My locks were extremely thick, long, and beautifully brown. They were healthy and full of life. I used to get compliments for my hair in college almost daily. And I was known in college as “that girl in Sociology with the really pretty hair.” People often mistook my natural hair to be fake, a wig, or color and a heavy amount of styling – that’s how flawless my locks were.

It obviously didn’t last because the day my thyroid got diagnosed, my hair fall had already started a month prior to it. Initially, it was slight and the doctors said it was normal with hypothyroidism. 

But then, the horror happened. 

I went to get my hair washed in the salon one day and I got an oil massage done. I was not aware that thyroid makes the scalp too weak to get a massage. The massage tangled my hair completely and the weak scalp gave up – half of my hair fell flat on the ground in one go.

It was the scariest experience ever. 

But surprisingly, it did not get to me. Probably because my mind was already worried about why I was having fever, rashes and body aches again and again and again.

After this episode, the hair got so thin that I decided to get them chopped off. I got them cut to shoulder length and they started looking much better. And I felt good about this decision.

A month and a half later, I was washing my hair at home and again, I saw a lot of hair go down the drain and in my hand, I held nearly half my hair. This time around I went into shock when it happened and I had a panic attack (probably because I witnessed it first hand). The result was that now my scalp barely had hair and you could count the strands that I did have.

Things were not good.

When my illness finally got diagnosed and we discovered that I have lupus – it explained everything. Also, the fact that my hair would come back – eventually.

But despite all this, one thing that surprised me was how I dealt with it. I was not shattered. I had lost my most prized possession to my illness but it did not bother me because I’d also lost so much more in that period. I’d nearly lost my life – in every sense of the word.

I had metaphorically lost my life in the college, social life and work experience I’d missed out on. And I’d lost my life in the near-death experiences I’d had with my flare-ups and the cancer scare due to my illness. It had all shaken me up so much, that my hair loss was… nothing?

It was just another mundane thing to have happened in my life. Because I knew I’ll get my hair back, eventually. I might not get everything else back but I will get my hair back. My mental health, surprisingly, did not get affected as much as I’d thought it would, by this.

Though, my body image definitely did get affected (and still does, to an extent). I still get questions about my hair and it truly frustrates me how they are now – compared to how they used to be. I see girls with long, beautiful hair and I get envious of them. I feel sorry for myself at times. But then I remember that a pity party will not help. 

Having hope and faith will.

Love Life Stories

My grandmother is losing her stories to dementia – and it hurts to watch

My grandmother used to tell me stories of her fighting against the patriarchy with three children.

Around 1970, she left her marriage to start a better life.

She would tell me stories of working many minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet for her kids. Working over fifty hours a week, she was the breadwinner for her family.

[bctt tweet=”Sometimes she talks in circles because she can’t find the word she wants to say.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Many people in her church fought against her for choosing to leave her spouse and as she always told me, “The pastor said he wouldn’t give me a pinch of salt until I took back my husband like a proper woman. I never did go back to him. I just kept pushing through it.”

In her forties, my grandmother decided to go back to school to become a nurse. She became a Registered Nurse and worked until her retirement.

And now?

As a person in the early stages of dementia, she struggles with remembering where she puts everyday objects.

Sometimes she talks in circles because she can’t find the word she wants to say.

“It’s on the tip of my tongue. I know what I want to say!”

She can no longer stay by herself since she fell last year in the yard while walking her dogs. She stayed outside for hours on the ground because she left her cellphone on the kitchen table.

Like many people suffering from dementia, she has become more combative with those around her. She occasionally says things people might find offensive. When somebody corrects her on what she’s missing from her memory, she gets extremely upset.

I realize she’s not actually angry, but dealing with a wide range of emotions.

How would I react if one day the same stories I’ve told me entire life were just…missing?

Would I feel like a black hole was taking over my mind, slowly sucking up the details of my life?

[bctt tweet=”Would I feel like a black hole was taking over my mind, slowly sucking up the details of my life?” username=”wearethetempest”]

She no longer likes the same food she used to enjoy before. As my mother describes it, she only likes to eat children’s food : chicken strips, fries, mashed potatoes, etc. Her taste buds are sensitive to the tiniest amount of spices.

On her down days, she tends to cuss more often.

“My life is shit.”

Since she has always been a very devout Christian, it has been hard for me to hear these things from her. I remember her chastising me for saying ‘crap’ as a pre-teen. However, I hear this is common in dementia patients.

[bctt tweet=”I realize she’s not actually angry, but dealing with a wide range of emotions.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Most dementia is caused by brain cell death and brain cells are some of the only cells that can not regenerate in the body.

It hurts to know she will never get better – only worse.

I am witnessing the destruction of her body before my eyes and I feel helpless.