by Carol Grant
As far back as I can remember my mother had a deep fear of cancer. She was convinced that any twinge or unusual symptom she experienced was an early sign of the dreaded disease. When I was eleven or twelve, I returned from school one day to find my mother in a distraught condition, crying and pacing to and fro in our kitchen. She was saying between sobs, “I know it is cancer and I’m going to die.” She had discovered a lump in her breast and was going to see a surgeon but, she lamented, “What is the use? I am going to die anyway.”
I recall being terrified and feeling helpless during the subsequent weeks awaiting her appointment and the biopsy results. Her surgeon must have been a loud and blustery individual because she quoted his surgical philosophy which was, “When in doubt, cut it out!” The images that statement produced made my terror and imagination go into overdrive. The days dragged interminably as we all awaited the biopsy results. When they were reported as benign, the whole family sighed in relief. However, from then on, my mother was on an educational campaign as her surgeon had encouraged her to tell her friends and her daughter the importance of self breast examination and early reporting of any abnormality. I was in the stage of early puberty and had not yet developed breasts or menstruated. My mother decided it was the ideal time for “the talk.” She must have been overwhelmed with all the information she was determined to share with me. She later told me that she had never been prepared by her mother or anyone about menstruation and that she thought she was dying when she first noticed blood between her legs. I surmise that may have been one of the sources for her cancer phobia. So I empathize with my mother’s determination and discomfort as she struggled through her lecture. Somehow in her hurry to get it done, she combined the information about self breast examination with a minimal explanation about menstruation, leaving out the location of that phenomenon. When she was done and leaving the room, she turned back to say: “If you see any blood, be sure to tell me right away.” I was left with the impression I was going to bleed from my nipples! All I could remember were her surgeon’s words, ”When in doubt…” I was terrified with the prospect of growing up and becoming a woman.
Needless to say I took my mother’s message about breast exams very seriously and each night, I would prod and poke my budding nipples and small breast mounds. They felt bumpy and irregular. Were they “normal’ or should I ask my mother but then, she would drag me to her knife-happy surgeon! Later, when I did mature and ended up with small breasts, I wondered if all that prodding might have impeded their growth! At the same time that I was “blossoming”, my two older brothers delighted in teasing me, mainly about my physical appearance. Their favorite taunts included, “You’re as flat as a pancake!” or “You have two raisins on an ironing board!” Great help for an adolescent girl’s self esteem.
My mother’s preoccupation with self breast exams must have sunk into my subconscious, because in my career as a nurse and health educator I was diligent in teaching women the practice of SBE and the importance of early detection and investigation. I even brought home the American Cancer Association’s rubber breast models with their hidden nodules and lumps for my two teen age daughters to explore and the testicle models for my adolescent son to probe and prod. I hope that I didn’t freak them out as their Nana had done to me despite her good intentions.
My mother’s conviction that she would die of cancer never came to pass. She lived a long and healthy life with only minor health issues and died at age 95 in April 2005.
I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer one year later in April 2006.
I celebrated my Ten Year Survivor Anniversary of being Cancer-free this year.
MRI CHAMBER COMPOSITIONS
It’s only a test-
Will the magic rays give me
Loud jackhammer sounds
searching for cancerous cells-
Am I lost or found?
Body as bullet
sliding into the chamber
RAT! TAT! TAT!-Got me!
Please don’t move! Don’t sneeze!
Is this how a coffin feels?
Breathe. I AM alive.
forty-five minutes to bear–
let me out of here!
Lying on belly
breasts hanging through peepholes-
My essay “Breasts” was composed for the Health and Wellness assignment in the IRP study group “Guided Autobiography” in the Spring semester 2016. This group was superbly guided by Coordinator David Grogan who established a safe and confidential environment which allowed his students to disclose and share many intimate moments of their lives.