'Cancerversaries' in the Glorious Month of May

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A caregiver describes her daughter’s experience with breast cancer, and what the month of May signifies to them both.

My 27-year-old daughter, Adrienne, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of 2019, and like many people who have gone through all there is to deal with as a result of that diagnosis, there are many “cancerversaries” in her life that have to be managed during the year.

Of course, the biggest one is the date she first heard the words that it was a “little bit of cancer,” the day that we crossed over from being oblivious to the fact that young woman do, indeed, get breast cancer to learning far more than we ever wanted to know about the lifelong damage done to the body as a result of the only way we have to slay the dragon. I find myself having helplessness dreams as that date approaches, the kind where you need to run but your legs will only move in slow motion. Even two years later I want very much to be able to run away from watching her go through the hellscape of cancer treatment.

A week ago, Adrienne reached out to me because she was having a very rough time. Although May 29 was the first day of chemotherapy, she felt like it was more than that. She couldn’t figure out why she had been tossed back into the abyss, but when the two of us reached back into our memories to think about the whirlwind that was May 2019, the reason soon became evident.

A LOT of things happened in May. It started with a second surgery because of questionable margins. I had gone back home to prepare for moving in with her for the duration of treatment when she called me at work to say the surgeon had been asked by other members of the oncology team to go back in and take more tissue. She was crying on the phone and I said to her “Honey, I know you don’t want to be doing this,” and her reply ripped another piece of my heart out: “Mom, I don’t want to be doing any of this.”

A blessing of that surgery was that as a result of the recovery period she ended up with the time to do fertility preservation, which meant daily needles into her stomach and a total of 13 subway trips to the fertility clinic and many, MANY clinically intrusive examinations by a variety of medical professionals during a time when we had to do all we could to protect her incision. Her egg retrieval was successful, but her body processed the sedative medication very quickly and she ended up feeling much more of it than she should have. And going through the process meant acknowledging that chemotherapy might leave her 27-year-old self infertile.

Knowing she was going to lose her hair to chemotherapy, Adrienne made the choice to shave her head a week before treatment started. It started with her going in for a pixie cut and ended with her leaving the salon and asking if we could go buy some scarves, because as the stylist was cutting, Adrienne realized that it would cause her a great deal of distress to watch even that amount of hair fall out. That was the day her cancer experience went from being private to very public in the buzz of a razor.

And in the middle of all of that, we went to chemo teaching at the hospital where we learned exactly what she was facing once she sat down in that chair starting on May 29.

At the end of our conversation last week, what we both came to understand is that May was the month that Adrienne realized that she had lost control of her life. She is a resourceful young woman who has taken risks and made choices and, in the end, whatever the outcome, she knew that she had some control over the situation. Cancer took that away.

Once she was diagnosed, the treatment plan never really had any options because she knew she wanted to live and the alternative was what was on the other side of the scale. While we are extremely grateful that treatment was successful, cancer is still in the driver’s seat in a lot of areas of her life and she has had to become a captive to that reality.

The resignation in her voice when she calls to tell me about one more side effect or when she has to pause a video chat so she can go take medication to prevent recurrence rips out pieces of my heart every time. I can never know what it was like for her because I didn’t have cancer. What I do know is that I wish that loss of control was a highlighted topic of discussion when people are diagnosed, because it really sucks.

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