Every October, we are made vividly aware that it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The pink push for mammography quadruples, and the stories of smiling, shield wielding survivors donning pink ribboned paraphernalia decorate social media, TV and billboards throughout the country just like condos popping up on any piece of vacant land in Edgewater, NJ.
But, do we talk about those who didn’t survive? Maybe it’s a harsh reality, but it is certainly a scare booster to get screened. Candy coating the devastating truth that breast cancer can turn you into a mere mortal should be as much of a call to order as survival rates. Granted my mother’s journey started in the early 90s, and we have progressed into another universe as far as detection and treatment, but the fact remains, it’s not all about pink cupcakes and running marathons.
My experience with breast cancer is not a gleeful story of hope and survivorship. It’s a photo album of memories that were cut off when I lost my mother at 28, right after the birth of my first child. Most people think they will live forever, and I am sure my mother did not expect to die, or leave us at 62, but that was her destiny… thank you breast cancer.
I remember her early diagnosis around 55. She had a baseline mammogram that did not detect anything. It was a routine OBGYN exam right after that when her dr., Dr. Richard Levine at what was then Columbia Presbyterian, finished a breast exam, and walked over to the sink to wash his hands. At that moment he turned to her and said, “I need to re-examine you. Something isn’t right.” And, he did, and there was the lump. Later to be identified as a very aggressive malignancy. That moment from God gave my mother another five years with me.
She was baked with radiation and infused with chemo. She lost her beautiful hair…a woman so radiant and fashionista of her time. She was sick and nauseous, battled fevers and infection, but determined to live. She clutched on to the Blessed Mother as her go-to girl, and as she lived healthy, never missed Mass, said her Rosary, and gave her sacrifice of health to the Lord. In return, the Blessed Mother granted her faithful follower health and curly hair during remission. We were doing okay, until the five-year mark hit.
She tried to keep the discovery from me. I was very pregnant with Devin and she was so focused on the arrival of her grandchild, that she put so much effort into masking the reality for me. She told me there was a lump on her lung, which, in the end was a mets to the lung from the breast. Not good.
This time she opted for more heroic, experimental treatment at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where oddly enough my future husband was on staff, under the watch of Dr. William Grace. She loved him and more importantly, trusted him. He coupled up with Dr. Niculae Ciobanu, a hematologist aptly from Transylvania, Romania to execute a new treatment called stem cell. In a nutshell, stem cell extracts stem cells, or fresh cells from your body, and harvests them to recirculate. While all that is going on, your body’s immune system is brought to ground zero, almost death. During that period, stem cells are injected into your body in the hopes they will regenerate and destroy the cancer. And, they did just that. She was cancer free. But somebody didn’t take into account that she had rheumatic heart from childhood, and these harsh drugs are cardio toxic. An avid walker, aerobic participant, diet watcher, non-smoker was no match for these chemicals. She died after falling into a drug induced coma on January 31, 1996.
I was always told to pray to St. Scholastica for snow, because according to her name, she was the patron saint of weather and school closings. I think that’s a big fib, but in any event, she sent the Blizzard of ’96 exactly on the day of Devin’s baptism before she entered the hospital. Her last event.
My heart is in my colon about to escape like a huge hemorrhoid when I go for my yearly mammogram. But I go. I go for my family, because being without my mother and not being able to ever give my kids my mother is the most heartbreaking thing I am reminded of, every day.
So yes, let us support and celebrate the beautiful survivors who are here with us today thanks to the sacrifice and brilliant minds of doctors and scientists who have devoted their lives and talents to a cure. Their hard work is not in vein, especially with so many treatments and earlier detection and technology not even scratching the surface 30 years ago.
But, let’s remember those who tried, but did not make it. Get screened to live, and become a survivor. Early detection makes all the difference, and the choices to aid in that survival are bountiful.
Ok, have a pink cupcake, wear the ribbon, and run the 5k.