My mother died recently at age 91 of a stroke. Although arthritis slowed her down in her later years, she still lived an active, independent life.
We hear so much about the 1 in 8 women who will get breast cancer in their lifetimes. That 12% number looms large in many women’s minds. Fear of getting breast cancer paralyzes these women. In some cases, their chances of getting breast cancer are greater than average because of family history or lifestyle issues, but, even so, most women do not get breast cancer, even those with some risk factors. More women die of heart disease than all types of cancer combined.
So the folks like my mother who are not affected by breast cancer . . . wait, not affected by breast cancer? You must be kidding!
My mother’s younger sister Thelma died of breast cancer in her mid-seventies. My mother worried about Thelma at the time of her original diagnosis. For about seven years she appeared to be just fine. Then the cancer came back, and this time it had spread. In March of 1998, when my mother attended Thelma’s funeral, she couldn’t know that in just a few weeks, I would be calling to tell her that I had breast cancer too.
My mother, always a believer in the power of positive thinking, didn’t mention her dead sister when I called. She began a litany of the women she knew who had beat breast cancer. “Did you know that Buddy had breast cancer years ago? She had surgery, and she has been fine ever since,” she said as she began the list of her friends with a breast cancer history. In most of these cases, I hadn’t known. Breast cancer is not a disease that women of my mother’s generation talked about openly until recently.
It is easy to think that all the men and women who will never get breast cancer in their lifetimes are not affected by the disease. But everyone of the 12% who does get it has sisters, mothers, and friends. In her lifetime, my mother had to be the supportive friend. She experienced the grief of losing a younger sister. She prayed for her child whose aggressive breast cancer would affect the rest of her life. My mother was relentlessly upbeat with me during my treatment, but years later when she saw me with my arm bandaged to control my lymphedema, she burst into tears. “I can’t stand that you are are still suffering,” she said, and, of course, I couldn’t stand that the side effects of my illness made her cry.
The cost of breast cancer ripples through our society in medical expenses, in lost productivity, in tears shed over those we love. The 88% suffer along with their sisters. We cry for our losses even as we give thanks for long lives that escape the physical ravages of cancer.