My mother's brave battle with cancer changed how I see the world
I didn’t know the specifics of the disease, only that I had an ominous feeling about it.
The topic was briefly discussed in my biology class during my high school days: the cells in the body suddenly have a mind of their own, reproducing at an alarmingly fast rate without the body’s permission, from a faulty gene in the body. Perhaps I possessed a certain degree of naiveté that led me to think that I was untouchable, that this disease would not be able to touch us. My parents were health-conscious, and I never knew a close relative that had it in any form. Then, July of this year, my mom said the most harrowing word I’d ever heard from her in my life: cancer.
I never knew how my mother found the strength to deliver the devastating news so casually. Maybe because she had been working in the medical field for so long, such occurrences had become ordinary. But I was and am not my mother. My knees shake at the sight of blood. I do not have a high tolerance for pain. Yet at that moment, no amount of heartbreak or physical pain could compare to what I felt upon learning that my mother was battling breast cancer. I truly think any woman who battles this kind of cancer feels a little betrayed: the very thing that gives sustenance to a new life would be the death of you. As if being a woman isn’t hard enough.
In my family, I took the news the hardest. I shut myself from the world and refused to talk about the disease. I thought that if I didn’t recognize it, it wouldn’t exist. For months, I couldn’t even mention the word for fear that by doing so, the situation would feel all too real. Before my mother contracted the disease, I didn’t know very much about breast cancer. I was torn between wanting to know more because I wanted to be informed, and not wanting to, because I wasn’t sure if I could handle the truth.
The first time it truly hit me that my mother had cancer was during her first visit to the oncologist. At the time, we were in the waiting area along with the other patients. Every one of them looked the same, with their heads wrapped with either a cap or a scarf. All of them had lost an integral part of their womanhood. I was looking at their faces but all I could see was that of my mother’s.
My good memory was something I was thankful for back when I was a student. Now I feel like it’s become a curse because of my ability to remember things in detail: what she smelled like, what hospital gown she wore; when she was wheeled into the operating room and I could see the effects the sedatives had on her; when she was finally in the recovery room with her blank eyes, uttering words she wouldn’t even remember once she was “recovered.” I could remember the way the big needle pricked into her skin. I remember all the tests she would undergo just to make sure her platelets remained in a normal state. I could remember after her first chemotherapy session, the way she would throw up the contents of her stomach, however minimal they were; the way she would try to get up from her bed but was too weak to do so. I remember the horrible things. But I will also never forget the good things. With cancer treatment, you feel the worst before you feel better.
You see, when a member of the family gets cancer, it’s like everyone has the disease, because it is so crippling. It changes family dynamics. You are forced to learn new ways of living to accommodate the change. Most of the time, I feel like I’m stuck in this endless loop of the same nightmare, and everyday I keep hoping I wake up from this bad dream. But this is reality: my mother has lost her right breast. Soon she will begin losing some hair, too, because of the treatment.
It is very hard for a woman to go through something like this—losing the physical manifestations of what “identifies” her as a woman in this society. It is because of this very reason that I began to realize how these things actually serve purely aesthetic purposes when it comes down to it. Oftentimes, we define beauty by external features. But this should not be what makes us beautiful.
Beauty goes beyond the physical. Beauty is strength. Beauty is compassion. Beauty is attitude. Beauty is looking your worst fear right in the face and being able to see the silver lining. Beauty is the ability to love wholeheartedly, even if you feel like your own heart is broken. Looking at my mother, I can honestly say that she’s never looked more beautiful than she does now—with her right breast gone and with her scars as proof that she has battled a deadly disease.
After the storm, you begin to search for the rainbow. You realize that having support is a big step towards recovery and that every story of survival serves as hope. You realize that having cancer is not a death sentence.
My mother is not just a statistic. She is so much more than that. Cancer will not define her, and neither should it define other women battling the same disease. My mother is loving, understanding, and strong. With or without cancer, she continues to be the same person and refuses to let this disease control how she lives her life. I guess my only regret is that it took a disease for me to really look, listen, and know my mother as a woman and not just a parent.
In the realm of possibility, anything can happen, but it is the perception that makes a difference. I refuse to let this disease dictate the way we live our lives. Cancer is a learning experience, and it taught me to appreciate life. It led me to an understanding that this word we fear, cancer, or “the big C,” can be overcome by an even bigger “C”: courage.
Frances Grace Damazo, 22, lives in the Philippines. She took a break from law school to pursue writing. She currently works at an organization which helps in the rehabilitation and recovery of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. In her spare time, she can be found reading her favorite books in quaint cafes all over the city. Follow her musings on Twitter at @randamazo.