Family Connections With a Cancer Diagnosis

A caregiver discusses the grueling experience of not knowing whether cancer could strike one of her children or family members again at any given moment.

When my daughter, Adrienne, was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of the first questions asked was if there was any family history of breast cancer. Not only is there no history of breast cancer, but there is also no history of cancer period. When genetic testing was recommended, Adrienne went as soon as possible because she is the middle of three sisters and the aunt of a little girl and she knew it was important for everyone involved to know if there was a known genetic marker, and the results came back not a one. Adrienne is the alpha.

Because Adrienne was so young at diagnosis, both of her sisters were eligible for a special screening program that allows for mammograms and MRIs to be done at a much younger age than is usually covered. Her older sister went last week, and we discussed it with her younger sister when she was over for a visit on the weekend. In that conversation the younger sister said one of the reasons she keeps putting it off is she knows very well that her family needs there not to be anything there.

You never really know the impact of a cancer diagnosis on everyone in your life. Adrienne had some friends ghost her, some admit they couldn’t manage their reactions – so they had to stay away but were there if she needed any running around done – and others who become an integral part of her support system. Adrienne managed the experience in such a way that although everyone knew it was bad, they never actually saw how bad things got because Adrienne and I protected them from that.We are a very close family, however, and the changes her younger sister saw in my behavior when I was with Adrienne were enough for her to know that if her rock of a mother could show some cracks, the pressure being brought to bear must be intense.

I sat there not quite sure what to say. I desperately need her to go get the testing done because I know that early detection and diagnosis is one of the reasons Adrienne is still here. I also desperately need to never pick up the phone again and hear one of my children say “Mom, it’s cancer.” I have not had cancer nor gone through treatment, but I have seen one of my children go through it and watch her still dealing with the aftermath, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

I have to acknowledge that the fact that I didn’t instantaneously push her to book the appointment was an indicator to me of one of those behavior changes I have experienced. In that nanosecond, I put myself first, thinking about what it would be like for me to engage in the caregiving experience for someone else I would give my life for. What it would be like to once again hold someone’s hand as they went through procedures and spend sleepless nights pleading with the universe to give me the power to make it all go away. I have just gotten to the point that I feel some iota of healing taking hold. I still have cracks in my rock. I am not sure that if that same pressure came to bear, I wouldn’t be ground into dust under cancer’s weight.

The truth is I wouldn’t NOT be able to do it. In a heartbeat I would be there for her the way I was for her sister. It’s how I’m built. It’s like a caregiver vow I made with them when they were born – in sickness and in health, for better or worse. I would figure out how to manage the distress the way I did before, put together a plan to make her life as easy as possible. But for now, all I can do is live with the ‘scanxiety’ blues, holding my breath hoping upon hope that when the phone rings I’ll hear those glorious words, “Nothing there, Mom.”

Who knew how much meaning and power those three simple words could encompass?

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