Cancer creates connections in our lives. And some are hard to forget.
I got the call on Mother's Day 2014. I had flown to California to be with my mom who, at 93 years of age, had fallen ill and was not expected to live much longer. There was a message left on my cell phone. "Hello Khevin. I have a little bit of bad news. The breast mass is cancer…" This past weekend, on Mother's Day, I celebrated my fourth year as a breast cancer survivor. I also celebrated the life of my mom, who died two days after my diagnosis, never knowing that I had cancer.
Who doesn't remember where they were and who they were with when they first got the bad news? I sometimes wonder how doctors prepare themselves to break the news to us. Do they say it out loud a few times to see how it flows? Do they use the same language for every patient?
You may think that a cell phone message is a little too informal, perhaps even cold. But the truth is, I was traveling and asked my oncologist to let me know the results of my biopsy and ultrasound tests if they happened to come in on that Sunday. To her credit, she took the time from her own Mother's Day with her family to give me the information I had asked for. I learned over the phone that I had cancer, just as I had learned of my mom’s diagnosis, too.
I had a lot on my mind that weekend, which was probably a good thing. I never expected the news to be so grim, but I really only felt a numbness and a sense of disbelief rather than anxiety or fear. In fact, over the next several weeks as I prepared for my mastectomy surgery, the very notion that I was a man with breast cancer seemed so insanely odd that I was never able to completely process it. I didn't intentionally try to remain stoic as I systematically finished up some projects and prepared some goodbyes for friends and family, just in case my life was to be severely shortened.
At this point, I had no idea of the stage or grade of the cancer in my left breast, so I made a conscious decision to "go with the flow," for want of a better metaphor, and do what I was told in order to survive this murky disease that had invaded my life. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. My cancer was stage 1. Stage 3 indicated a fast growing, aggressive form of cancer, so who was I to complain? When we get the results of our disease, whether they are good or bad, our task becomes one of self-defense. We learn as we go, and we actually can get good at surviving. We almost become accustomed to living a life of suspense and not knowing. But it's never as easy as that.
And those indelible moments, when we first learned of our cancer, are forever etched into our memories and our lives. There are events and experiences that will always connect us with those first words we heard that identified us as cancer survivors. In my case, it will always be Mother's Day. But it's not a memory that carries that original slap-in-the-face disheartening revelation and messes up that day on the calendar forever. The truth is, it's a day that inspires a good deal of joyfulness.
I've learned that there are many events in my life that can trigger a connection with my cancer. But I've also come to realize that it makes no sense to react over and over again to those recollections that do little to make my survival easier.
So, this time around, Mother's Day was no longer about living with cancer. It was all about honoring Mom.