I write this column after a night of shop-hopping: Bouncing from one local retailer to another on the hunt for a few cool and comfortable button-down shirts.
Quirky and fun as that might sound, it was anything but.
My mom will soon be undergoing a mastectomy. And her surgeon recommended the tops for ease as she heals.
The day after her surgery, I will be 39.
You never imagine while going on mother/daughter dates to lunch and a movie during your formative years that one day, you’ll be spending your birthday watching the woman who gave you life face such a hurdle in the fight for hers.
And yet, here we are, another cycle around the sun.
Since the end of October, she has been enduring the battle of all battles against stage three inflammatory breast cancer. It’s a rare, rapidly developing and aggressive form of the disease that affects approximately 1% of all breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.
I had never heard of it before that day. As it turns out, I was not alone. As I soon would learn, IBC doesn’t present itself the way other forms of the disease do. It frequently goes undetected by mammograms, making it that much more difficult to diagnose until it is in an advanced stage. Early on, many cases are dismissed as simple infection.
Met with some fear and a few tears, my mom managed to keep her sense of humor intact when test results revealed what we feared: “And yet, I never win the lottery,” she said, breaking the silence in the room with laughter.
Since then and due to her health insurance at the time of her diagnosis, my husband and I have committed to almost weekly treks to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for oncology appointments. A seemingly endless array of scans resulted in the need for 24 brutal courses of chemotherapy that led to several emergency room visits, two hospital stays and a pulmonary embolism.
For anyone undergoing such a regimen, my hat’s off to you. Despite the inevitable hair loss (my mom’s most heartbreaking obstacle in the beginning before we found her several fashionable headscarves, a wig that looked remarkably like her hair and a hat that read, “Excuse me? But have you seen my hair?”), chemo side effects are no joke. And the journey through treatment to recovery is filled with valleys that require deep breaths before the reality sets in that you first must trudge through it before topping the next hopeful peak.
Our last peak was the news that after going through chemo hell, she had responded favorably, making her operable. Our next valley is this surgery being successful. But even if it is not, we’ve learned in the past several months to live in each moment and take each rickety bridge as it comes.
Perhaps due to a heightened awareness, it seems that everywhere I turn, I encounter someone touched by this horrendous disease — from close friends to friends’ spouses, parents, sisters, brothers, in-laws, even another TH columnist Lyn Jerde, who has been documenting her journey with cancer in her monthly spiritual column.
There is a familiar undercurrent of kinship that accompanies my encounters with these individuals — an unspoken dialogue that occurs with a knowing look that says, “I know what it’s like.” Although heartbreaking, it’s also strangely comforting to feel less alone in those moments.
Our family has been blessed by such a strong community of support from friends and colleagues who have never wavered in their ability to step in for other areas our busy lives so that we could be the best caregivers we could be.
For those who find themselves in the throes of this journey, it’s a fight that takes an army. But no matter what role you are in, you are not alone.
I also happen to know of a few places you can get some beautiful button-down shirts.