Yesterday was my birthday, and although it was wonderful getting birthday wishes from friends and family and I had a fun evening out, it’s sort of a scary one. No one likes getting older, I guess. But my reason is a bit beyond that: I’m now the exact same age my mother was when she died of breast cancer over twenty years ago.
It’s a day I’ve been dreading for a very long time. “Haunted,” is a more appropriate word that comes to mind, actually.
For me, knowing this day would arrive has been a driving force behind early and routine testing, almost constant vigilance, and prioritizing my own self-care. Although it’s been terrifying at times (like when I had to have a biopsy done last year that fortunately turned out benign), I’ve so far managed to be proactive without becoming paranoid.
Not an easy line to walk. But I do it day by day, a little at a time.
My mother was very young for this to happen. When she got sick, it was nearly Christmas and I was just back from college on break. She had gone into the hospital that very day, and my father and I were sent for hepatitis A testing. The doctors initially thought that’s why she’d gotten sick, and needed to see if we were sick, too.
If only that had been all it was. We were not so lucky.
My mom passed after just three days of hospitalization, and learning of the cancer diagnosis. It had spread from her breast through her bones and body, and her organs were failing. So it had been growing for some time by then. She had gone into a coma, and my father and I agreed to take her off life support. She died at 7:13 in the morning, and I remember like it was yesterday.
In that short time, I never really got the chance to ask her much. Both she and my father are gone now, and what little I know of what she went through, I heard from him.
On top of that loss – the worst of my life, really – are all the unanswered questions behind it. My mother never told me she felt sick, or had noticed any breast changes. She’d had cancerous moles on her face removed a couple of years earlier, but there’d been no further concern. Why had she acted on that, but not on something wrong with another part of her body?
My mother was afraid, I think, of knowing what was happening, maybe because it was happening to such an intimate part of her body. But I don’t really know the answer, and never will.
Now, in my role as a nurse, I’ve seen other examples of how fear can stop people, from going to the doctor, from telling anyone, from making tough choices and changes that might make all the difference. Sometimes the fear of finding something out feels worse, and it prevents people like my mom from doing anything at all. And in her case, it robbed her of possibly at least some more time and life.
After that, I vowed never to repeat what she did. I would never be more afraid of knowing than not, or let fear stop me.
And though I feel a bit of it now, it certainly did not stop this birthday from coming. Fear will never stop anything from coming, really, I think. I mean, it has it’s good points, too. Without it, we humans would have no sense of self-preservation, and naively left our caves one night and gotten eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger a long time ago.
But it is the awful paralyzing fear that I, well, fear the most.
The kind that you know deep down is wrong, that tells you don’t leave the awful relationship, don’t take a chance on that new job or new person, don’t listen to your body even when it’s shouting at you that something is very, very wrong.
Now I will listen to it, yes, when it shows itself. But I’ll use my mind – my rational judgment and sense of self – to determine whether it’s really got a point or not.
And more than that, I try to enjoy, every day, the life I have, and both the creative and practical work I do. I’m grateful each moment for my friends and family, my home, my pets, all the more so because I feel keenly how tenuous it all is, and know how it can be lost and gone in only a moment.
With that mindset, even a big bad birthday can lose its power. And happily, I can say the dread I felt for so long is fading.
But I’ll have to continue walking the sometimes shaky line I feel underneath my feet, the one that runs alongside being watchful without venturing off into being worried, hoping I find the courage to face whatever comes, whenever it shows up. I know that’s what my mom would’ve wanted for me, too.