Losing my aunt to breast cancer was the first time I faced mortality

The month of October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Growing up, I had always known my Aunt Sue had cancer, but I’d never comprehended cancer the way it seemed the adults around me could. When you’re young, everything seems fine. I saw my aunt almost every weekend growing up. When I moved away, she would still make time to fly out and see me. She always appeared to be feeling well, up for anything, willing to take on the day with me.

I had friends who lost loved ones to cancer, but in my mind, I assumed my aunt was different. She was stronger than the breast cancer invading her body. She could fight this. I could never relate to someone who’d lost a person to cancer. My aunt was a superhero defeating an evil villain, after all. She was a rock star always conquering each and every day.

Until I lost her.

I was an adult now. It was April, early morning. I was packing up my things to head home from a vacation when my phone rang. I stepped outside my hotel room to answer my mom, who I assumed just wanted to make sure I’d survived the music festival that weekend.

My mom was never one to sugar coat things.

“It’s Sue. She’s been given one month to live. The cancer has spread and I think it's time you come home.


My boss was understanding when I returned to work only to tell him I needed to leave again. He told me to leave as fast as I could, to say goodbye while I still had time. But the rush still didn’t make much sense to me. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined something taking over a person’s body so fast — a demon-like disease taking home in my sweet aunt who had only done good to the world.

I was on a plane back to a small town in Iowa, my mother’s words pounding in my head with each passing minute. On the plane, I contemplated everything I knew about cancer, which was close to nothing.

My plane landed and I soon pulled into the driveway of the house where my childhood was nested.

I stood outside the front door for what felt like an hour, thinking of this time limit that didn’t seem to actually exist. I imagined walking into a home where cancer didn’t exist.

My uncle opened the door with a smile and gave me a hug. He loved Sue more than anything in this world. They had gotten married when they were just 16 years old. My heart sank knowing his grief was ultimately worse than mine. I was saying goodbye to my aunt; he was saying goodbye to his partner in life.

Wrapped in a blue, fuzzy robe, Sue sat in a recliner, going through pictures. She was happy to see me and reached her arms out for a hug. The woman inside me promised not to shed a tear, but the little girl couldn’t handle seeing Sue so fragile and weak in the chair surrounding her body.

Death is inevitable and happens before our eyes. Car accidents, strokes, and heart attacks take the people you love in a matter of moments. The thing about cancer is that it strips away your hope while slowly hurting the ones you love right before your eyes. Knowing that cancer is taking the person you love is like the wind getting knocked out of you, feeling like you’ll never breathe again. It’s witnessing a car crash that you could do nothing to prevent.

It’s seeing your aunt’s name float atop your phone screen one final time before she passes away.


I had spent three days with her, sitting on the couch, talking about anything that popped into our minds. Soaking in the last hours we would ever share with one another. She held my hand as she shared her last wishes for me before she went away.

“Shelby, I need you to always remember, things are just things. I may be surrounded by stuff, but I can’t take any of this with me when I go,” she said.

I opened my heart and soul in any way I could to take in every second of my time with her. When the 72 hours was up and I had to catch my flight, I felt as though all the air in the room was gone. I sat on the couch looking at the powerful woman who once made over 100 sugar cookies for my high school graduation party before I had even woken up; this powerful woman who could now barely walk on her own.

“What do I do to say goodbye to you?” I asked, fighting back tears.

With a soft smile, she said, “Just hug me like you’ll see me again."

I knelt down and hugged her for what felt like forever, stuck in a moment that I refused to let end. There were no words, no tears. Only two women, one of whom was taking some of her final breaths on this planet. I let go first. I grasped her hand, grabbed my things, and walked out the door.

“Be good, kid. I love you,” I heard her say as I was leaving.

One more time, I said, “I love you, too.”

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