My family isn’t the greatest about expressing things. We are a family of ‘fixers’ and ‘doers’, not ‘feelers’ and ‘talkers’. Given this fact, it was no surprise that when my mother, Sally McCurry, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, the call I received was short and to the point. I was 23 years old, my mother was only 58, and I was confused, scared, and felt robbed of time.
A cancer diagnosis is always heart-wrenching and bleak. Even though we weren’t sure what stage the cancer was at that point, your mind immediately goes to the darkest places. I was still a child in most regards, I knew so little, and I was too young to lose my mother. I wasn’t sure what my mother was feeling because if she was afraid, in pain, or angry, we never knew.
My mother was ‘lucky’. It was ‘only’ stage 2. My mother ‘only’ had to go through weeks of radiation. She was ‘lucky’ and didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. Lucky. She didn’t lose her hair, but I remember that was when she stopped dying it. It seemed silly in the grand scheme of things. Who knew my mom has the most gorgeous silvery hair?
As I established earlier, my family is not comfortable with expressing our feelings. I didn’t know how to support my mother or what she needed. I was young, naïve, and avoided the responsibility of knowledge. I was there for my mother in what I thought was the right way, but my younger sister took her to her radiation appointments while I was working full-time, and I was somewhat removed from the realities of her illness. I was shocked to learn what a ‘port’ was and unaware of just how devastating the toll of that worry and stress and pain really was, during and after treatment. To this day I look back on it all and feel ashamed I didn't do more.
I think the most surprising thing about the entire cancer diagnosis and treatment is this; it was a monumental life event that my mother managed to minimalize and make seem as serious as a head cold. My mother has a talent for taking trauma and dealing with it with such grace that even the most horrific of situations are remembered as having little consequence. The thing about my mother is, she’s been a survivor her entire life, and breast cancer was just ‘another thing’ in the long list of things she’s survived. Without rehashing our families’ past, it suffices to say that cancer was a small thing compared to some of the trauma she's endured.
When I was asked to write about my mother because she’s a breast cancer survivor, it seemed strange to me. I think often when someone faces cancer they tend to be defined by it in a way, and my mother is so much more than a cancer diagnosis, survivor or a statistic. She is a teacher, librarian, gardener, dreamer, fighter, protector, friend, mother, sister, daughter, grandmother… she is so much more. If someone asks about my mother I immediately think about books and rocks and plants, not ports and radiation and cancer. When we talk about breast cancer survivors I think the most important thing to remember is the survivor is not their diagnosis, they are so much more.
So, for breast cancer awareness month, I want to celebrate my mother, the woman she is, rather than just one of the many things she has fought and overcome in her life.
Even though now we live so far apart, I only need to step out my front door and take in the beauty of the trees, rocks, and flowers to be reminded of her and how nature speaks to her soul. Each time I see the daffodils that have sprung up outside the rock border of the flowerbed, I think of her. Many would either remove the flowers since they didn't fit in the 'plan' of the bed, others would move the border to encompass the flowers. I leave them because they remind me that they grew there because that is where they are happiest, where they thrive... and that is not something to be controlled. I want to thank my mother for teaching me to be happy and thrive, even when it doesn't fit in my 'plan'. Mom, thank you for showing me that even the wildest of things are beautiful if you let them be what they are meant to be. My mom was never meant to be a cancer survivor, it was never part of her ‘plan’. My mother is wild and beautiful because she is what she was meant to be - herself.