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Her Story: My Grandmother is a Two-Time Breast Cancer Survivor


July 2008 should have been great. My birthday is in July, but everything that happened in that month made me completely forget my birthday that year. In the first week of July, my grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The news hit my family extremely hard. None of us saw it coming when she sat us down to tell us. My grandma is like a second mom to me. She helped raise my brother and me. We grew up in her house because my mom, brother and I moved in with my grandparents after my parents’ divorce. I couldn’t even process the news; I remember my mom asking, “Are you going to be okay?” I was just sitting there, staring blankly after she told us.

My grandma decided she was going have a mastectomy on her right breast, because she felt that her best option was to try to get the cancer out all in one go. She didn't like the thought of losing her entire breast, but she didn’t want to take the chance of having it spread. Plus, she had already been through open heart surgery several years before, so the thought of this surgery didn’t scare her so much.

Just as my grandma was feeling comfortable about her decision, my mom suffered a massive heart attack on July 19 and passed away unexpectedly at only 47 years old. In the midst of her fight against cancer, my grandmother was grieving. I remember her saying again and again over the next several months that no parent should ever have to bury her child. Meanwhile, I was completely numb—my mom and I had been so close, and we did everything together. I didn’t know how to handle everything that was happening at one time. But when you go through events like this, it really makes you appreciate life—your own and the lives around you—that much more.

My mother’s passing gave my grandma second thoughts about her upcoming surgery. She started fearing the potential outcomes and consequences to her health, and her life. But I had to keep telling her, “You've got to do it, you've got to be strong. Mom would want you to go through with it.” During this time, we went through kind of a role reversal—though I was still grieving, I had to be strong for the woman who had been strong for me all my life. You do what you have to do when someone you love is going through something this hard.

Surgery day came around in mid-August, and I was a nervous wreck. I was scared how my grandma would come out of it, if she would get really sick, if they would get rid of the cancer with this operation—so many thoughts were running through my head. My grandma came out of surgery healthy and in good spirits. They had removed her right breast and lymph nodes just in case—thankfully, there wasn’t any sign of cancer there, so it hadn’t spread.

My grandma dealt with the surgery with a sense of humor, saying, “Just call me ‘one-boob Mare’ from now on!” Her name is Marilee, and everyone calls her Mare. For the first time since my mom had passed, I felt a little bit better. I felt like a weight had been lifted when they came out and said that her surgery was successful and that she was already awake from it. It finally felt like something was going right.

Recovery was pretty tough on my grandma, both physically and emotionally. It wasn’t easy for me, either. I was the one who helped her keep the area clean and bandaged, and I became very involved in her recovery process. The first time I helped her change her bandages, seeing the drain in her wound made me feel a little lightheaded and nauseous—I was overwhelmed. It's one thing to hear stories from other people, but when it's actually someone you know and love going through this? Totally different story. You never can really know what something is like until you're directly affected by it.

My grandma made a full recovery from the mastectomy. She didn't want any reconstructive surgery (she said she was “too old to bother with a new boob”—her words, not mine!) so she had a prosthetic bra made for her. She continued to take a variety of medicines post-surgery, and though everything made her feel ill, she stayed positive. Eventually she was able to stop taking medicine, and was back to her old self. It became easier to deal with the loss of my mom, and it felt like the sun was coming out, finally—things started to feel normal again.

But then, three years later, the cancer came back. We weren’t expecting it to happen again. Because my grandma was going in for regular checkups, the doctors found the cancer right away. It was present in a small spot in her chest, in the scar tissue from her mastectomy. I was so upset when I learned it was back. I kept thinking, “Why? What did she do to deserve this again?” Going through it once was enough.

Overcoming cancer this second time was easier than the first—not that fighting cancer is ever an easy battle, of course. Treatment was different this time. The cancer was eliminated with chemotherapy and radiation within just a few months, and fortunately didn’t have the same physical effect that getting a mastectomy had had. Once again, my grandma was able to defeat another hurdle thrown her way.

I'm extremely proud of her for being able to conquer this disease not once, but twice, and I definitely consider her a hero for it. She's the reason that I am as strong a person as I am today, because I look at her and know that a bit of her strength is instilled in me. She's a huge inspiration.

Because I know I have a family medical history of breast cancer, I’m careful to do self-breast exams—something I believe every woman should be doing. Don’t ever put off getting something checked, even if you think it might not be a big deal. Doctors were able to catch my grandma’s cancer in the early states both times, and I truly believe early detection was important to her recovery. My grandma is cancer free and in good health, and she’s able to enjoy life now.

I'm hoping you can find some inspiration here, and always remember that there is hope—hope both for yourself, anyone you know who may be fighting this disease, and hope for a cure someday.

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