My mother was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer last fall. Yes, the worst of the c-words (although I can think of another that may give cancer a run for it’s money!).
Fortunately, after her initial diagnosis, her doctor was able to get her in immediately to perform an exploratory surgery and stage the cancer. Unfortunately, this meant that she had less than 48 hours to inform the family. Because I live away from my family, the news had to be broken to me over the phone. “Sarah, I’ve got some bad news… I’ve got ovarian cancer.” My heart sank, my eyes watered, and I felt this wave of sadness and fear completely wash over me. All I could say was, “What?!?”
The week after Thanksgiving, she started chemo. While this has been one of the most challenging things I’ve had to watch my mother confront, I have found myself in awe not only of her strength, tenacity, grit, determination, and resiliency, but most importantly her grace. I’ve always learned important life lessons from my mother, but this experience has highlighted this for me. As February is National Cancer Prevention Month, and also the month that my mother celebrates her birthday, I would like to share the top three lessons that I have learned with you all.
1. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your reaction.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s continuing battle with cancer is that you absolutely cannot control anything. While you start with a plan of treatment, things can happen and wrenches will get thrown into even the best-set plans. Being a person who likes to be in control, and likes to know exactly what is going on, this has been, for me, one of the most frustrating parts of this entire process. While I, the person who is not directly fighting this battle, find this frustrating, my mother seems to take each change to the plan in stride.
Recent advancements in chemo, specifically the use of targeted therapy, have greatly limited the damage to healthy cells. While this is great news, this doesn’t make going through chemo any easier. You still experience days where you feel really bad. When the chemo really started to get tough, my mother said to my family, “Well, this just means that it is working, and we want it to work!” Instead of focusing on the pain and discomfort, and letting that get her down, she instead chose to focus on the positive side of the pain. She recognized the pain, but looked at how this was a necessary part of the process, using that to draw the strength and courage to get through it.
2. Don’t be afraid to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
When you think about it, chemo is bizarre. Essentially, you are taking drugs that are designed to attack and kill fast-growing cells, even those that are healthy. While the side effects are different for everyone, one of the most common side effects is hair loss. In some Native American cultures, hair is considered the physical manifestation of our thoughts and an extension of ourselves. Putting it in this context, chemo, and the potential for hair loss, becomes even more absurd.
Even before my mother started losing her hair, she had the ability to laugh about it. She wondered if hair loss included leg hair and underarm hair, and she joked about her excitement regarding the potential reprieve from shaving for several months, asking “what woman wouldn’t enjoy that?” She joked about how much faster she would be able to get ready and discussed all the things that she would be able to do with that extra time. She joked about how much money she was going to save because she wouldn’t be using nearly as much shampoo. When she finally decided that she wanted to shave her head (being a self-described neat freak, she was over seeing her hair throughout the house) she asked us to take a picture and send it to her brothers, telling us to poll them about which one she now most closely resembled.
Throughout this entire process, she has been able to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Apparently, laughter is the best medicine.
3. Keep on keepin’ on
The reality of life is that you are going to have good days and you are going to have bad days. With cancer, the bad days can be pretty awful. While each day has the potential to present a new struggle, it also gives you the opportunity to rise to overcome it. Overcoming this struggle doesn’t necessarily mean defeating it immediately. Sometimes it means being patient and sometimes it simply means accepting the struggle and refusing to let it defeat you. As cliché as it sounds, although it may be a bad day, it is another day—and another day, in and of itself, is something for which we should ALL be thankful. We may not know what is around the corner, and when we discover it, we may not know how to deal with it, but if we keep on keepin’ on, we will eventually get through it.
The takeaway from this, in addition to my mom being a warrior goddess, is that mothers are one of our greatest teachers. I’d love to hear about some of the lessons you’ve learned from your mother. If you have a child, or children, I would love to hear some of the lessons you’ve learned as a mother.
While writing this has been fairly difficult, it has also been incredibly cathartic. I appreciate the opportunity to share this, and I hope you all enjoyed it.