Part 2: ‘The Treatment’
Note: This interview was written from a series of conversations between the author and her mother over several years. It has been put together to present this part of the series.
Me: Do you remember the day of your diagnosis?
My Mother: Yes. It is a day I will never forget. I remember the doctor telling me that I had a good chance of survival, that the lump they had discovered was small, that there was a fighting chance. The doctor spoke a language of hope. But all I could hear was death, disease, disaster. You know that saying about the world crashing down on you? Yes, that is what happened to me. The world as I knew it came crashing down on me.
Me: You had to go through the whole rigmarole of treatment. A lumpectomy, then four cycles of chemotherapy, and then 25 sessions of radiation. Can you tell me how all of this seemed to you?
My Mother: If you ask cancer patients about their experiences with cancer treatment, there will be a unanimous response that chemo is probably the most vile of them all. It is a process that kills you in order to give you life. The worst thing I remember about chemo was the persistent taste of metal in my mouth. No matter how much water I drank or what I ate, that taste would remain. There was also the bone-deep exhaustion and lethargy. I spent hours just sitting in a chair, staring into space because there was nothing else I had the will to do. Maybe that was another terrible thing about chemo: it was supposed to help you live, but it tore down your will to do that very thing.
Me: And yet, you made it. Were you scared at any point?
My Mother: I was scared at first. Terrified, really, especially when I first found out that I had this disease. I’d seen what it could do to people, how it had killed someone I loved very much. I was scared because never had my mortality been so brutally brought to light. More than death, though, I was terrified of having to suffer through the various treatments. I knew how difficult it was going to be. And after all the other things I’d gone through until that point, I didn’t want to have to be in pain and in perennial discomfort. But human nature is a funny thing. You think you cannot survive and overcome something until you do, and you realize that you’ve crossed these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We reach a tipping point of what we think we are able to deal with and, once we cross it, the fear, the anxiety, the worries fade away.
Me: When they speak of chemo, one of the things that most women dread is the hair loss. Vanity aside, there is a stigma to being a cancer patient that also incites specific responses from people. Pity, fear, sometimes even condescension. How did you deal with all of this? The hair loss, what people thought of you, etc?
My Mother: The hair loss was never a problem for me. Actually, I had all of my hair shaved off the moment I began my treatment. If I was going to lose my hair, I was going to lose my hair on my terms. So I asked my husband to help me shave my hair off, and he did. Once he was done, he patted me on the back and told me I looked pretty fetching. An exaggeration, clearly, but he was supporting me in my decision and that’s all that mattered. As for what other people thought about me while I was going through this experience – would you believe me if I told you that that was the last thing on my mind? All I wanted to do was beat this thing. I had the support of my family and my friends, and I was going to get through this, somehow. Nothing else really mattered beyond that.
Me: You seem to share a very special relationship with your husband. Can you share a bit more about what this experience was like for him? Or even what this experience meant for the both of you?
My Mother: I do have a very special relationship with my husband. He was such an unwavering source of support, but this is how he has always been in all our years of marriage. He is, however cliché this may sound, the calm to my storm. Also, my husband has immense faith that things always work out for the best in the end. I don’t know how he does it; sometimes, I’m jealous of this inner peace he has, especially during my darker moments when nothing made me feel better. My husband’s generosity of spirit and patience taught me about how I could be a different person Post-Cancer. And I’ve been working on it since.
Me: This may seem like a strange question, but do you feel that your experience with this disease has changed you for the better?
My Mother: It’s funny you should ask this because I have often thought about this myself. My life has been effectively split into two chapters: Pre-Cancer and Post-Cancer. The person I was Pre-Cancer was a woman who held everything too close to my chest because I was so afraid of loss. I needed control and certainty, to the point that I was snuffing the life out of myself and the people around me. Being diagnosed was a huge wake-up call, a divine slap-in-the-face, if you will. I was very rudely reminded that nothing was within my control, that the certainty I was seeking was a mere ruse for my own insecurities and fears. That understanding came at a cost, but it was an important lesson. My husband tells me that Post-Cancer I’ve become a much more mellow version of my former self. I’m inclined to agree.
Me: If there is one thing you could share with other women about your experiences, what would it be?
My Mother: This too shall pass. And this is the second thing, but I’m going to take the liberty to say it anyway. Go for your mammogram check-ups regularly because early detection can save your life.