Mother's Day is a special time for remembering our mothers, and even when breast cancer was involved, the memories can still be sweet.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I can’t help but think about my mother-in-law and remember her brave battle with breast cancer. Little did I know then, but 10 years later, I’d also receive a diagnosis of breast cancer.
My mother in law, Annie, was born in Flowery Branch, Georgia in 1930. Her father was a farmer and her mother, a stay at home wife. She was one of 12 children. They lived a simple life. They loved God, had strong morals and values, and believed in a strong work ethic.
After completing college, she married and began her own family. She worked full time as a medical secretary for 36 years and then retired. She and her husband, Carl, enjoyed their life spending time with family, serving their community, and volunteering in church programs to help refugees. Annie was always busy! She was a remarkable woman and then breast cancer entered her life.
When breast cancer came, I watched as my mother in law took the disease in stride. She only slowed a little when she had surgery to remove one breast. She continued to be as active as possible and made sure to exercise every day.
After she’d healed from surgery, her oncologist put her on tamoxifen. He felt it would increase her odds of survival. We were unfamiliar with the drug and had no idea how it might affect her.
We were told tamoxifen would help fight her body’s natural production of estrogen, which fed her tumor. “Hopefully,” the doctor said, “this would help prevent a recurrence of cancer.” Tamoxifen is often recommended for postmenopausal women and since Mom fit into this category, her doctor felt it the best choice of medication for her situation. The doctor explained it could also help fight osteoporosis, which is common in aging adults, and could help reduce cholesterol.
Weeks after Annie began taking tamoxifen, the family started to notice mild changes in her behavior. She’d become fatigued more easily and she was noticeably more emotional. We attributed those small changes to a combination of age and recent surgery, but as the days went on, we realized tamoxifen was playing a larger part in these changes that we’d first thought.
Mom began having mood swings and at times would become very depressed. These side effects were frustrating to her and as they became more prevalent, she visited her doctor for advice.
The doctor encouraged her to continue taking the medication and assured her the side effects would lessen over time, but that didn’t seem to be the case. We saw her memory begin to be affected and the mood swings increase.
Even with all of these side effects, Mom continued to push through. She did her best to live every day with purpose.
She helped care for her husband when he was diagnosed with parotid gland cancer, a very rare form of cancer. After he passed away, she lived on her own for several years until she was diagnosed with dementia and needed to be in an assisted living home.
She died in 2012, at the age of 81. Two years after she died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I received my diagnosis, I wished so desperately that Annie had been alive so I could ask her advice. When I was presented with a proposed treatment plan including the drug, tamoxifen, I was unsure I wanted to go that route. I wanted to ask Mom how she felt while on the medication, but all I could do at the time was remember how she’d acted while taking it. Even though I couldn’t speak with her and gain her insight, the memories of her actions helped me make my decision not to take the medication.
I didn’t realize, until my own breast cancer experience had begun, how my husband and I had failed Mom as she was in the midst of her fight. We could have spent more quality time with her, but we didn’t understand the deep ramifications of the disease. Instead of just being available to take her to appointments, visit her in the hospital and assist her with things around the house, we should have been more intentional about focusing on her emotional needs. In retrospect, I realize she needed us so much more than she ever let on.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman in your teens or in your golden years, you can get cancer. Some might think it’s more difficult for a woman in her sunset years to have cancer but in my mother in law’s case, I beg to differ. She was one very brave and very strong woman. I can’t help but think some of her internal fortitude came from the way she was raised. Growing up in an era without many of the modern conveniences we have today helped teach youngsters back then to work hard and fight for what was important to them.
On Mother’s Day, as I spend time with my family, I will honor my sweet mother-in-law, Annie. We’ll reminisce about her strength, her resolve and how cancer forever changed her life, but we’ll focus more on how she loved, how she made us laugh, and how she managed to teach us the value of a life well lived.