What It Feels Like To Know That Cancer Runs In Your Family


Cancer was hardly ever on my mind before November of 2012.

But it wasn’t completely unknown to me. My father had been diagnosed with very early stages of testicular cancer when I was a toddler, but after surgery and radiation, he made a full recovery. And then there was his father, my grandfather, who had passed away from colon cancer before I was even born. So, it’s not as if cancer was a completely alien thing to my life. It just wasn’t something I ever really thought about.

That’s kind of weird though, isn’t it? Every year, almost 13 million people are diagnosed with cancer, and about half of them will eventually die from the disease. Despite how large those numbers are, I don’t think anyone really dwells on the thought of cancer, at least when it doesn’t directly affect them or someone they love. It’s just one of those evils in the world that the majority of us choose to never acknowledge until it is, quite simply, our problem.

About a year and a half ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. And although I had already known, to some degree, what it was like to have a parent undergo the struggles of such a disease, I was older this time, and therefore much more aware. My father’s diagnosis came when I was a child, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even think I fully knew what was happening to him at the time. Now, I was old enough to know what was going on, and the circumstances were set to affect me in a more personal way than I could have ever imagined.
I got the news just as my first semester at University of Delaware was coming to an end. In the weeks prior, my mom vaguely informed me every now and then that she was seeing a lot of doctors, getting a lot of tests done. But my mom has this very unique way of hiding just about anything that could be even remotely painful to her children. And so, I was never worried. I was sure it was a false alarm, whatever “it” was.

You know, finding about these kinds of things doesn’t happen the way they portray it in movies and TV shows. I had a few preconceived notions about how, if ever, I would be informed if a loved one was diagnosed with cancer. I saw myself, and all of my immediate family with me, in a bleak, dimly lit, cold room, with a balding man in a white coat and glasses delivering the bad news. And we would all nod solemnly, perhaps some of us would cry (okay let’s face it, of course I would cry), but somewhere, deep down, we’d all know it was going to be okay.

So, imagine my shock when I found out about my mom’s diagnosis from a text message. Yeah, a text message. Welcome to the 21st century, I guess.

It’s been almost two years since my mom’s initial diagnosis, and yet I can still remember where I was, and exactly how I felt when I read that text. I was coming out of a Sociology class in Smith Hall, Starbucks in hand, checking my phone as I usually do as I walked outside into the brisk November air. Nothing prepared me for that moment. There was no “bad feeling” that I woke up with that day, no premonition of any kind. The words were just there on the screen, burning a hole in my eyes.

To my family’s relief, my mother’s double mastectomy was successful. Despite this encouraging news, though, the oncologist strongly suggested that my mom start chemotherapy as soon as she recovered from the surgery. Which only made the whole ordeal even more unsettling. If she had a clean bill of health post-surgery, why did she still need to endure the horrors of chemotherapy?

During that year of my mom’s treatment, I saw a lot of things. I saw my mom sit for three hours every other week in a cubicle hooked up to a bunch of different IVs. I saw her bravely walk into a hair salon that specifically caters to cancer patients, and shave off all of her hair before she could watch it fall out on its own. I saw her purchase a gorgeous blonde wig on the same day, in the same place. I saw the support of my friends as I finally confessed to them what was going on. I saw my boyfriend offer all of his genuine love and support to me as I went through countless mood swings and bouts of depression and anxiety.

And as of four months ago, my mom is officially finished with treatment, allowing me and my family to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Well, kind of. While my story here has an extremely fortunate ending, there’s one struggle that I have yet to mention. A more personal one that I never quite felt was appropriate to mention to anyone, since this whole situation was my mom’s hardship, not mine.

Just about a month ago, my aunt (my mother’s sister) discovered that she has the same gene for breast cancer that my mom had, plus she recently identified a lump in one of her breasts. It’s highly possible that she’ll be facing the exact same surgery and treatments that my mom had to endure.

So, at the risk of sounding completely and utterly self-involved, I have to admit that this recent news scared the living shit out of me. Taking into account this scary family history of breast cancer, according to the statistics, my chances of developing the disease have increased fivefold.

The question is, then, what do I do with that information? Tuck it away until I’m in my 40s or 50s, when it’s more “socially acceptable” to worry about it?

I had once posed these questions to my mom’s oncologist, and as expected, I was basically told, “Don’t worry about it. You’re too young for that. We wouldn’t want you getting a mastectomy in your 20s, that’d be insane!”

I mean, would it really be that insane? Because to me, what’s more insane is dying before I can live long enough to see my children graduate college, or before seeing the birth of my grandchildren. It’s insane to think about the prospect of dying before you’ve accomplished everything you want to do in your life. Am I the only person who’s sometimes terrified by this?

But, at the same time, I do see their point. I am too young to know these things. I’m halfway done with college now, I’m working my first internship ever this summer, and pretty soon I’ll be working a real job. Do I really want to complicate all of the amazing, exciting things that life has in store for? Shouldn’t I enjoy life while I’m still young, and deal with the hard stuff later? Maybe. I don’t know.

At the end of the day, after I’ve tossed these thoughts back and forth in my head for hours on end, it seems that I always come to the same conclusion: I don’t want to know right now. In all honesty, I’m too scared to know the truth right now. I could fuck up my life before I even have the chance to really live it. And life’s a pretty damn beautiful thing — I absolutely don’t intend on wasting it.

featured image – The Fault In Our Stars