Tuesday, October 19, 2021

My Mom and Breast Cancer Awareness Month

I posted the following on Facebook over the weekend in memory of and in honor of my mom - 
Ellen Jean Keller, 1949-2014. 

It’s October and the pink ribbons are out again for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I went for a semiannual checkup with my gynecologist yesterday and my breast MRI is scheduled for next week.

I love my new dr. She’s my age. Straightforward. No nonsense. When I switched to her last October, I had to give my family medical history. I usually get very pitying looks because of all my risk factors: my mom had breast cancer for the first time before the age of 50; my mom had breast cancer twice and her second cancer was not a recurrence but rather a different kind on the opposite side of her body from the first; my mom died from breast cancer; my maternal grandmother died from uterine cancer; and I’ve had two lumpectomies to remove benign breast fibroids (ages 16 and 33). This doctor just took all the information in stride, held my hand, looked me in the eye and said it’s time to get tested; we need to know what we’re up against.

So I did the genetic testing last fall and I do not have the BRCA genes. Big relief! But that was somewhat short-lived when she told me that my family history puts me at 4x greater risk of developing breast cancer than the average woman. I stopped taking the hormones I was on for menopause (welcome back hot flashes!) because my mom’s second bout of cancer fed on estrogen. I see the doctor twice a year for clinical exams and alternate years for mammograms and MRIs. I’m thankful for the opportunity to avail myself of all these preventative measures.

My mom’s story is far more than just some statistics in my family history. It’s been 7 years since she died and I think it’s important to share the realities in the hopes it will encourage someone else to seek treatment sooner. My mom was first diagnosed right after our wedding in 1999. It was caught at stage 1 and the team at Moffitt in Tampa removed the lump and a couple of lymph nodes to be safe. Mom squeezed in radiation appointments around working full-time. Very few people knew she was “sick” and she never asked for help. She was supposed to take tamoxifen for five years afterwards but I found out later she stopped somewhere around year two. She found it inconvenient to go back and forth to Moffitt for those appointments while working and caring for my grandmother and she felt fine.

I found out about her second bout of breast cancer in April of 2012, but she had actually found the lump at least eighteen months before and told no one (my dad was homebound by then and she was still working full-time and caring for him). I knew nothing until the orthopedic surgeon told us in pre-op for my mom’s broken tibia that it would be a difficult repair since so much of the bone was diseased from metastasis. Mom ignored her cancer, not because she was ignorant or irresponsible, but because she was scared and couldn’t face the idea of being sick and having to be taken care of. I can’t imagine how tired she was after 10+ years of working full-time and being a caregiver for my grandparents and my dad. This time though we had to ask for help because my dad was already gone and I lived 90 minutes away. Mom was continually amazed at the lengths her friends, family and church went to in order to get her back and forth to treatments and to work, allowing her to remain living independently in her home. The amazing team at Moffitt gave us much more time than we initially thought we would get. Thanks to their efforts and treatments Mom lived for 26 months after being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with major bone metastases. She got to meet Davis and live through a year of his firsts with us.

Before she died, when she realized she wasn’t going to get to remission and wouldn’t get to watch her grandsons grow up, my Mom told me how much she regretted her choices to cut her first treatment short and to ignore the lump. She died two weeks after my 38th birthday. I was angry with her for a long time after she died, but I have reached the place of forgiveness and acceptance. My mom was always the helper, and found her value and worth in what she could do for others. She excelled at being a “superwoman” that everyone could depend upon and thrived on juggling all of the things that other people needed. She did not know how to put her own needs first, or how to ask for help, and she mistakenly thought she would have plenty of time for that later.
So here’s the takeaway - this October do more than just be “aware” of the pink ribbons around you. Women, please, do your self-exams. Visit the doctor for your annual exam. Get regular mammograms or other imaging. Take your health seriously and MAKE THE TIME for it. You are worth it. Encourage other women in your life that you love and care about to do the same. Don’t be ashamed or too proud to ask for help when you need it. Your family and friends who love you are counting on you.

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