The Dreaded C Word


I got a call from my mom, unusually early on a Wednesday.  “I have breast cancer,” she said with a detached tone.  I wilted and started crying, at which she commanded, “No, don’t be sad. I mean, you can be sad if you want, but I will be fine.”  It was an odd conversation.  She was definitely in a phase of shock and denial.

Being a teacher on summer vacation, I was able to take my mom to her surgery a week later.  She just wanted me to drop her off, another subtle way for her to stubbornly keep believing this was not a big deal.  But it was the biggest of deals.  Cancer can be a matter of life and death.  It is a word with centering power—everything else just fades into the background.  So I sat with her, maybe the most sacred of pastimes.  I sat with her while they injected dye into her left breast that fed me and my four siblings decades ago.  I sat with her as they took her clothes, hooked her up to IVs, asked her endless questions and told her several times what the procedure would look like.  And then we sat and waited for what seemed like hours.  Each step of the way, I watched her be stripped of her sense of control, her sense of strength, her sense of immortality, her sense that everything would be ok.  As we walked into the wing with the word oncology on it, as doctor after nurse after aid repeated, “breast cancer,” I watched it dawn on her that her reality had indeed shifted fundamentally.  There exists in society a demarcation between the sick and the well.  This powerful woman, this strong warrior began to doubt.  What seemed like an inconvenience and an annoyance—a hiccup in the flow of her daily life– started to become a daunting reality.  And I fought back tears all morning.  I did not want to be the healthy adult, the strong one.  But that is what it felt like.  We have moved to a new stage where parent stops taking care of child and child starts taking care of parent.  Neither of us are fully emotionally prepared for the job description shift.

The prognosis is good, and I do not think I will lose her to breast cancer in the near future.  But it is there, the cloud of cancer, haunting the family.  And I am looking at six weeks of sacred sitting with my mom as she faces radiation five days a week.  We are both preparing, rearranging our schedules and building our strength for an uncharted battle with our new roles.

I have always been proud to seemingly share the exact genetic code of my mother thirty years later.  We look identical, we act on point.  We share hair patterns and leg shape and tendencies to obsess and perfect and be tough.  I like the genes I have inherited from her.  I have great eyesight, great work ethic, a deep love of children and quick twitch muscles that enjoy being competitive.  So it felt heavy to have my yearly exam the day after my mom had tissue removed to stop cancer from spreading, and to tell the doctor that my mom, my gene twin, has breast cancer.  “So there’s that,” I offered to my physician.  “My family medical history has changed.”

“My mom has cancer.”  About every third time I say it aloud I start to tear up.  Because it is scary and out of my hands, and gosh darn it I love my mom. She does not want to be sick, nobody does.  But we are shifting our schedules and our roles to fit our new reality.  We will fight for health and we will sit together one day at a time.

  • Oh Ellie! I remember when my mom called me to share similar news, several years ago. The clenched gut feeling, the tears… all I can say is that most of us, if we live long enough, will be diagnosed with cancer. And these days breast cancer is one of those for which there are many, many treatments. Know that you are all in my prayers!

    • Thank you so much Mary. We are hopeful, and we know we have so many who have lived through it to support us!

  • Katie Padderud (Thompson)

    I went through a similar situation with my beloved mother in the summer of 2006. We fought the same fight that you and your mother will and we are going on 5 years cancer free…but you are right, it changes your roles and it once again reminds us of how precious each day together is. I will keep you, your mother and your entire family in my thoughts and prayers. I know you will be strong for your mother, but I also know that you will need to lean on Dan and let him be strong for you. Thinking of you,

    • Thank you so much Katie. At first my mom did not want to talk about it, but it helps so much to have people’s support and feel less isolated knowing we are not alone.

  • beth Jackson

    Oh, Ellie…I did not know. Just ran into you at Target tonight, now find your writing that I love so much here.

    I, too, received this call. Bri was two. And my mom still lives to this day (and mostly drives me crazy). We all have that inner dialogue about sharing the gene. And if you have a daughter someday, you will worry more deeply about passing that gene on to her. Thanks for sharing your story. It is painful. But it will make you stronger each time you tell it. She will find strength in so many other survivors. Prayers and love for your beautiful gene pool.

    • Thank you so much Beth. Your words and support help!