My grandmother, Boe, has lived with my family from the time I was born. As a kid, I could not have hoped for anything better. The treats, gifts and showering of attention that other children received on occasional visits to grandma’s house were all a constant fixture in my life. Going to garage sales was our activity of choice, and I never walked away from a day of sales without a new toy. In short, I was spoiled rotten.
Yet, amidst the pampering, my clearest childhood memory of time spent with my grandmother wasn’t a present or treat, but running into Boe’s room to snatch my favorite toy from its perch: her wig. It was the perfect mix between a make-believe pet and the best dress-up accessory ever. I would sit in the middle of the kitchen floor brushing it, until I decided that it was finally fit to go on my way-too-small head. Then the fashion show would begin, with my parents taking the hundreds of pictures and Boe laughing. It wasn’t until I'd reached my teenage years that I questioned why Boe had a wig to begin with; it was then that I learned she'd had breast cancer.
My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, when I was two years old. It was also the year that my younger brother was born. In every picture with the new baby, she’s smiling. You would never know anything was wrong, unless you knew her well enough to notice the change in her hair from chemotherapy, and the eventual switch to the wig. Even that change was hard to perceive. She adopted the wig early on in her chemo treatment to make the transition as seamless and unnoticeable as possible. This is one of the things I respect most about my grandmother: She bore cancer with a smile and was so strong through the process that as a child, I had no idea that she was sick. When I realized all of this as a young adult, I was floored.
Boe found out that she had cancer from a typical mammogram—the type of mammogram that most women have annually from the time that they are twenty-one. The type of mammogram that most women dislike getting but during which they think, "It won't happen to me. It can't happen to me." Yet this time, it did happen to Boe. For me, this is an unimaginable situation. I simply cannot wrap my mind around the thought of a doctor looking me in the eye and saying, “I’m sorry, but you have breast cancer.”
From this lack of comprehension is born the deference and respect I’ve developed for the extraordinary women that lived with breast cancer. From this physical weakness comes the greatest strength that anyone can hope to experience in his or her lifetime. While it is a brand of strength that I would not wish any woman or family to have to show, it is humbling as a woman to see the battle these women fight daily and the impact they have on the world around them.
Twenty years passed since Boe was first diagnosed with, and then overcame, cancer. Throughout most of my adolescence, including middle school and high school, breast cancer wasn’t anything more than something I mentioned to my doctor when discussing my family medical history: “My grandmother had breast cancer, but it’s been in remission for years.” Thought it wasn’t an issue I stopped caring about, it wasn’t at the top of my mind, either. But just as breast cancer grew into a hazy memory, it came hurtling back into my life this past summer. Somewhere between the barbeques and pool parties, breast cancer came back to Boe for a second time in June 2014. Once again, it was discovered in a typical mammogram, and once again, breast cancer came as a surprise. Except this time, Boe is twenty years older and in the beginning stage of Alzheimer’s disease. And this time, I also know exactly what’s going on.
It can be hard to talk about breast cancer when a family member is diagnosed, because often, it can seem selfish. In addition to the concern you obviously have for that loved one, you can’t help but also be afraid for your own health. Of course I worry about Boe, especially now that she’s older, both my brother and I are 12 hours away at school, and she is alone much of the day while my parents work. It breaks my heart.
But I also have an all-consuming fear that my mother will develop breast cancer, and that ultimately I will develop breast cancer as well. 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases aregenetic, which can seem like a small percentage until you have the potential to be a part of the statistic. There is nothing like a strong statistic about a fatal disease to remind a girl that maybe she's not so invincible. It's a scary thing to think about.
At the same time, it also serves as an inspiration both to keep myself healthy and promote women's health. While exercising and eating healthy definitely isn't guaranteed to stave off cancer, it can help prevent the disease. Women have to take responsibility for their health and be sure to receive an annual mammogram. I'll be the first to say that it's not a pleasant experience, but early detection can be the key to beating breast cancer. A couple minutes of discomfort is well worth the benefit.
When the thoughts of fear and anxiety creep into my head, I just have to think about the strength and courage that Boe has demonstrated. Breast cancer may be scary, but that doesn’t mean that I should live in fear. After all, for the past two decades she's lived either with cancer or with the knowledge that her cancer could come back, and I have never seen her so much as flinch. If she can do that, then who am I to be afraid?
While I pray that I will never have to personally face cancer and summon up the strength to fight the disease myself, I hope that if I do, I am able to meet it with the same grace and fortitude that Boe has demonstrated to me. My grandmother’s fight on breast cancer’s battlefield has taught me to smile, even when the unthinkable becomes reality.
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