Throughout my childhood, I had only heard the word cancer in passing. In elementary school, there was an annual campaign for the American Cancer Society called “Send A Mouse To College” to raise money for cancer research. Fundraising efforts have come a long way since the 1970’s, but awareness and cures still have such a long way to go.
October is National Breast Cancer Month. Breast cancer is also the first personal experience I faced with cancer.
My grandmother stood only 4’11”, but legend of the strength she possessed inside that small frame was dramatically understated as she faced one of the toughest challenges in her life. Being diagnosed with cancer would place her in an unfamiliar role. My grandmother had always taken care of everyone else, and with a cancer diagnosis, she would find herself in the unusual position of having others wanting to take care of her.
We all know someone who “if anyone doesn’t deserve a certain fate, it would be her/him” person. My grandmother was one of those people. Throughout my childhood, everyone of my friends knew of my grandmother as “their grandmother.” If someone fell and got hurt, they ran to my grandmother for the care of the wound. No one had better snacks. But as I got older, I saw why she was so well looked up to and respected. My grandmother was the most selfless person I would ever know in my life. There was no greater example of the benefits of helping others before yourself.
It was late 1986, and I had been offered a management job in retail. Accepting the job would mean two things. The first, I would be leaving college with just 3 courses left to take. The second, I would have to relocate as the location of the job was more than two hours away. But managing a retail store (at the time) was a huge opportunity for me. My grandmother knew this. As much as she wanted me to finish college (I was hoping for a psychology degree), she knew this was an excellent opportunity.
I would need some start up money in the form of first month’s rent and security deposit, and my grandmother was more than willing to help me get my head start. She believed in this move that I was making and she wanted the best for me.
I was not in my first apartment more than two days before I got a phone call from another family member. They informed me that my grandmother had just had a mastectomy. She had breast cancer. I was floored. I knew my grandmother always took care of others before herself, but this was over the top. As soon as I hung up, I immediately told my superior that I needed the next day off, so that I could return back home to visit my grandmother.
As I pulled up to the hospital, all I could feel was upset and anger. She was dealing with a potentially fatal diagnosis, needed to take care of herself, and without saying a word to me, made sure that I got a good start in the new direction my life was taking. My life was fine as it was. I was just a semester away from being the first in my dad’s side of the family from graduating from college. I did not have to take the job up north.
I walked into the hospital room where my grandmother was resting. As she saw me in the doorway, before I could get one word of my frustration with her out into the open, she quipped, “at least I will be able to fit into your shirts while I recover.” Of course she was making reference to having the mastectomy and having less up top inch-wise. With a tear in my eye, I could not help but laugh. She was still my grandmother, even with cancer, she was still trying to take care of me, putting me at ease, this time with humor.
I told her I was upset that she had taken the time to set me up in my apartment with a cancer diagnosis hanging over her head. To which she replied, “everything turned out fine with the surgery” and she would be fine. It was more important to her that I took advantage of the opportunity. That would be the last we talked about her breast cancer.
I went back to my apartment and new job. I know that my grandmother underwent some form of chemotherapy, though I do not know what. And it was not until later in life that I learned of it. Later, because it was only when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s that once again, my grandmother and I would have a discussion about cancer.
My grandmother was my role model for so many things in my life. But none with have any bigger implications, than my own fight against cancer. She had survived her breast cancer about three years when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Fighting cancer carried enough risks, but none so important as finding the right doctor. It was not as simple as just opening the Yellow Pages and picking an auto garage or restaurant. I took the best example I knew, my grandmother, and felt that the man who saved her life, would be good enough to save my life as well.
It was by my grandmother’s example that I took on my cancer head on. And just as she did to me, I made sure that I was not a burden to anyone else, not just a physical inconvenience, but an emotional one. I did not want anyone to feel sorry for me, because I was going to beat my cancer. I just knew it. For someone to feel sorry for me, I would take that to mean they had given up on me, something I was not ready to concede.
Of course my grandmother continued to offer care for me during my treatments, because that is what she did.
My grandmother would live several more years. She is the first cancer survivor I ever personally knew. Years later, she would eventually be diagnosed with another cancer, this time, ovarian cancer. In her typical fashion, she handled it on her own terms, controlling what anyone knew or heard. The cancer would soon after take her life. But it was on her terms, and that will be another post.
I miss you Grandma.