For the past five years, my mom fought an on-and-off, uphill battle with breast cancer. However, earlier this year, in August, we received the awesome news that she's in remission!
She may be on the road to recovery right now but there are still some struggles to deal with and important things to keep in mind along the way. I watched my mom persevere, and show strength and willpower that I didn't know she had. She surprised a lot of people along the way — even herself.
While I learned a lot throughout my mom's journey, there are quite a few that outshine everything else.
Don't take ANYTHING for granted.
A lot of times, it's difficult to muster the strength to do the most mundane things. After a treatment, you're just so physically exhausted and weak that all you can do is sleep — and usually, it's multiple days at a time. You barely have the energy to get out of bed, walk to the bathroom, or even do something small like pour a cup of coffee.
There were days when my mom had enough strength to do so, she'd manage to go out on the patio and just sit. Granted, she'd be exhausted from only walking 30 feet, but she'd watch the birds fly around, find shapes in the clouds, or just kick her feet up to try to relax. It didn't matter what it was, but the simplest things always put a smile on her face.
Treatments take a toll on your body, and there's no denying that. When you barely have the energy to stand, you quickly learn to appreciate the most underappreciated and overlooked things. It forces you to slow down, or stop and smell the roses if you will, because that's literally all you can do.
Life is fleeting anyway but when death is internally taunting and confronting you on a daily basis, you quickly develop an appreciation for every minuscule thing because you truly don't know if you'll make it to tomorrow.
Don't ignore what your body is trying to tell you.
This is pretty straight forward. Our bodies have their own ways of sending us subtle messages and clues that need to be taken seriously.
Don't write anything off. It may not be "just allergies," or that you "slept weird last night and that's why my lower back hurts," or even something possibly relating to your menstrual cycle. If there's anything out of the ordinary, take it as a sign to get checked out. Best case scenario, it's probably nothing, but knowing that is better than ignoring possible warning signs that might affect your overall health.
Those subtle hints can be a make or break situation and could save you a lot of literal pain and heartache.
ALWAYS do breast self-examinations.
While this can easily be included in the previous point, it needs to stand alone because it is so important.
Most professionals and websites recommend that you need to do self-examinations monthly, ideally a few days after your menstrual cycle ends so the usual swelling and tenderness have a chance to go down. At home, just follow these five steps and you'll be golden.
If you feel anything out of the ordinary, call your doctor and set up an appointment to get yourself checked out.
I feel like it's also necessary to point out that, yes, men can be diagnosed with breast cancer too.
It's not common. In fact, it's rare. However, it's still possible. So gentlemen, examine yourself as well. You might not need to do it as often, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
Your hair can always grow back.
When the time came for my mom to cut her hair a couple of years in, I think that was one of the worst moments for her. It made everything real. Her hair was part of how she expressed herself and it was the one thing she was, in a word, vain about. Though when it was time for the cut, it was like the hairdresser stripped a part of her away forever.
I will say, however, I thought it was neat that the hairdresser let my mom make the first cut. And because it was related to cancer, the visit was free.
This isn't just a spur-of-the-moment thing where you wanted to try something new and stylish. It's not like cutting your hair after a break-up because you think it's therapeutic or you're trying to "find yourself again."
It's the realization that the treatments have taken enough of a toll on you, and that it's a necessity.
As time went on, my mom became more comfortable with her new look. She got some hair gel and started being experimental with some styles. Her favorite thing to do when her hair was super short was to spike it up in every direction, similar to the crazy hair lady from Liar Liar. As it got longer, she rocked the mohawk quite a few times.
Eventually, she started looking at the positives. We live in Oklahoma and with this state's unpredictable weather, and the combination of heat and humidity, having short hair makes it easier to stay cooler during the day. She's also saved a lot of money on shampoo and conditioner and she doesn't have to worry about losing hair ties.
Now that things have begun to settle down and mom has found some silver linings and hairstyles to make having short hair easier, she's doing a lot better. Her hair is starting to grow out more, and she knows that her hair will eventually be long again.
Hair will always grow back. It might be excruciating to your self-esteem to make that initial cut, but it's OK. Experiment with some styles and find your new look.
In time, your hair will grow back but you are more important.
You can't worry about things that are beyond your control.
For the longest time, my mom would worry about every detail despite a lot of them being out of her control - and God forbid if you told her that. Doing this, constantly, brought her a lot of undue stress that she didn't need, even prior to her diagnosis.
Stress takes a toll on the body regardless. However, when stress and cancer are intertwined, it's like dousing a fire with lighter fluid. Stress acts as a stimulant that helps the cells grow and spread faster throughout the body, and as you can imagine, this is the last thing someone with any cancer diagnosis wants or needs.
It'll take some time to adjust but taking a step back, and realizing and accepting the fact that you don't have control of all aspects of your life and its surroundings takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.
I understand the fear of having no control, I do, but letting go of those unnecessary burdens is crucial for your emotional, mental, and physical health.
Try to look at things from an optimistic point of view. I know, that's easier said than done, but if you're constantly worrying about worst-case scenarios, that's a stress that you simply don't need.
You can't let stress dictate your day-to-day.
As previously mentioned, stress can exacerbate symptoms and cancer growth, especially when it's excessive.
There are quite a few things that you can do to minimize the stress in your life but every single one of them starts with reevaluating your current situation and surroundings. That might mean that you need to make some adjustments to your routine, find a hobby, or whatever the case may be.
Regardless, you need to pinpoint the source of your stress and work from there to make it better for you.
This might also mean that you need to have some tough conversations with some people in your life. At the end of the day, everyone will understand - or you hope they will.
If not, you need to remember that your happiness, your health, your life is more important than what other people have to say.
You need to prioritize yourself as much as you can.
A healthy support system is a must-have.
Notice how I said healthy.
We all have those friends and family members that say "call or text me if you need anything," but we all know that's out of courtesy rather than offering genuine support. With something as life-altering as cancer, you can't have people coming and going when it's convenient for them.
We all have our "ride or die" people but do you actually know, for a fact, how many of them would be there for the long haul if (God forbid) you got diagnosed with cancer? How about if you got in a car accident or just broke a leg? How many would be there to offer their help and support when you needed it the most?
Having a healthy support system, your ride or die group, is essential for making a successful recovery with virtually anything medical. A healthy support system is the ones who say "we can get through this," not "you can do this."
You'd be surprised how much of a difference a single word makes.
On one hand, your support system is saying that your burden is theirs as well; that they're willing to share their strength with you as you fight alongside each other. On the other hand, the entirety of the burden is placed on you with a couple of flimsy pats on the back. Which would you rather have?
Share the burden — always. Help as much as you can, no matter how big or small.
Never be afraid to ask for help.
My mom is a tenacious woman, and I inherited that trait from her.
We're the type of women that prefer to complete a task on our own and tell everyone to stay out of our way because, over time, both of us developed a mindset that we'll only be satisfied with an outcome if we do the work ourselves. However, this can get unbelievably taxing on an emotional, mental, and physical level. Eventually, you will break down.
Asking for help is not an admission of weakness or defeat.
Asking for help doesn't mean that you're any less of the independent, badass woman that you are. It means that you're strong and mature enough to know your limits.
In fact, the denial that you don't need help, that lack of humility and transparency, will become an obstacle that hinders you from making progress.
Don't let tenacity take over. Let people in and ask for help. Let them carry in the groceries, do laundry, get a cup of coffee — just let them help.
You don't need to do everything yourself.
Mood swings and sickness are inevitable, so be patient.
The treatments take a serious toll on the body. At first, my mom was receiving proton treatments because thankfully, the cancer cells were in relatively the same place. Though, unfortunately, there was a point in time where chemo became necessary, and chemo is far more brutal in comparison.
The usual symptoms can be anywhere from fatigue, bruising easily, appetite changes, nausea, and so on, and the severity of the side effects depends on the person.
My mom would have her good and bad days, and her moods would fluctuate accordingly. One day, she would be the happiest ray of sunshine you've ever met, and other days she'd either be too tired to care. Sometimes, something so mundane would upset her and I'd need to take shelter to avoid whatever storm was coming all because I put too much creamer in her coffee.
The mood swings and sickness are inevitable, so just be patient, help when you can, and don't make the situation worse.
Live each day as if it's your last - for real.
This seems a little cliché but when we're dealing with the c-word, it becomes more significant and meaningful. You truly don't know how you'll feel tomorrow — if you're even lucky enough to have a tomorrow.
Do things that you haven't done yet, no matter how big or small. Spend time with your family and friends, and tell them that you love them every single day. You may think, "Oh, well my family knows I love them so it's OK," but that's not enough. Don't give them the opportunity to second guess it or think otherwise.
Don't have any regrets. Face your fears, check things off your bucket list, and live in every single moment.
Be honest about your diagnosis.
My mom was originally diagnosed during my senior year in high school, 2016. However, I didn't find out until Thanksgiving of 2018, my sophomore year in college.
As we were going around the room sharing what we were thankful for, my mom had said that she wouldn't be able to say what she wanted to without bursting into tears, so she held up a sign that said, "I'm cancer free" — the first time she was in remission.
I genuinely had no idea within that two-year time frame. When I finally discovered the truth of how long she had been fighting, my mom said that she didn't share the devastating news because she didn't want to ruin my senior year and everything that comes with it. When I moved away for college, I wasn't home to witness or experience anything that may be warning signs, so I was completely oblivious.
When she held up that sign, I remember feeling sadness, confusion, anger, and happiness. Granted, that's an odd combination of emotions, I know. But imagine if your mom (or dad) or loved one was fighting for their life for an extended period of time and you were none the wiser. That's weeks, months, years of not knowing, and being unable to help them when they needed it the most.
So parents, siblings, friends — be honest about your diagnosis. You can justify not telling your loved ones all day long but the fact of the matter is, they need to know.
That secret can tear you apart and as much as you might not want to admit it, you need their help.
My mom is the strongest person I know.
We all know that saying, "through adversity comes strength." While we can apply that to literally anything nowadays, she was fighting for her life against, arguably, the biggest adversary in existence.
She doubted herself a lot along the way and whether she was fighting for herself or the people she loves (because that's such a mom thing), or maybe both, I'll never know. Even still, she prevailed.
She grew to appreciate her surroundings, the people in her life, and herself more than she already did. Watching her power through her darkest days, talking to her on the phone when she needed someone to vent to, and holding her when all the could do was cry showed me a side of her that I've never seen before. And now, she's stronger and more of a badass than she was before.
She's, wholeheartedly, the strongest person I know. And while a lot of people say this about their moms, I've got you beat, because mine is the best.
I love you, mom.