American Cancer Society Relay for Life
Carolyn Kern, May 2011
Every cancer victim has a unique story, and every one of us is a survivor of either our own cancer diagnosis or that of a family member or friend. Twice I have been diagnosed with cancer, but I have actually survived cancer three times.
Before I was born, my mother Marjorie Folger Hathaway was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33. She underwent a radical mastectomy, the only treatment available in 1948. Surviving five years was considered a cure, but her cancer came back to her lungs seven years later, and she died at age 41. She and my dad Ralph Hathaway had just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, and her death left him with three children to raise. Martin was 8, I was 5, and Marlene had just turned 4. My mother’s death has had a greater impact on my life than any other single event.
Thirty years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. Because my mother had developed cancer at such a young age, I had always known that my sister and I were at risk, but I hadn’t really worried about it. After I found the lump, I had my first mammogram that showed nothing, so the diagnosis was a swollen milk gland. Because the lump remained, I eventually had a biopsy that revealed stage two ductal carcinoma next to the benign milk gland that had caused the lump. When I first heard my diagnosis I had three simultaneous thoughts: My husband Ed might end up raising children alone, my dad would have to go through this again, and my mother must have looked in on us children asleep in our beds the night she went to the hospital the last time. This time I wasn’t the sleeping child; I was the mother of Marjorie (8), Peter (6), Joseph (4), and Celeste (2). I had a modified radical mastectomy in 1986 on our 15th wedding anniversary.
My oncologist upon learning of the family history strongly recommended chemotherapy and radiation treatments once my surgery site had healed. His exact words were, “If chemo had been available when your mother was diagnosed, she’d still be alive.” I had 52 weekly chemo IV push treatments interrupted by two months of five-day-a-week radiation treatments. The process took 18 months because of the weeks when my blood count wouldn’t support more chemo, and I had additional time off to recover from pneumonia following the radiation. I lost my hair, which to me was a much bigger deal than the surgery had been. I felt rather nauseated the entire time I was on chemo but I never vomited. Radiation was more comfortable with regard to side effects, but the closest linear accelerator was in Wichita and daily trips were exhausting. I left home each morning at 7 after Marjorie and Peter climbed on the school bus, had treatment in Wichita at 9, and was usually back home by noon or shortly after so I could do the same thing the next day. Since Joseph and Celeste weren’t in school, they often made the trip with me. I had wonderful help from family and friends who not only prayed for us, but also provided meals and childcare and helped drive me to treatment. It was a busy time because I was substitute teaching when I could and tried to help Ed at harvest. I was in a state of constant exhaustion, but I wanted to do everything I could so that if I didn’t make it, the children wouldn’t just remember me as the bald lady lying on the sofa. I was quite deliberate about how I chose to spend my time and energy, but it was very hard for Ed and the children. There were nights when I lay awake wondering how this story would end. I wasn’t afraid to die, but I was afraid of the living that would get me to the point of death. Most of the time I felt calm and rather objective about my prognosis, but sometimes I cried over my children who might end up without me. Mostly I prayed, and I know countless others prayed for me.
Because I had missed out on having a mom when I was little, I had been all about being a mother: reading to the kids, sewing their clothes, baking from scratch. After my cancer diagnosis, I realized I should instead have been about raising self-sufficient and independent children. Even a two-year-old can put her own dishes in the dishwasher and match up socks from the dryer. From that time on even after my treatment was finished, the children had chores and responsibilities and learned to cook, sew, and handle money. I very deliberately set about making memories with them and tried to prepare them for whatever happened. My dad used to say that he didn’t know who missed out on more, my mom for not getting to watch us grow up, or us for not getting to know her better. Later he said the same thing about my mother not getting to know my children. Before he died in 2009 at 94 years old, he said the same thing about my mother and my grandchildren! He had been diagnosed with brain cancer three months earlier.
I was glad he didn’t have to go through my next round. Last summer my mammogram showed a mass with “irregular margins” that was visually diagnosed as cancer. I asked to just skip the biopsy and have a mastectomy, but my surgeon wanted to know how much tissue needed to be removed, so I had a needle biopsy. The biopsy showed a benign mass instead of the cancer that had been predicted. Instead of feeling relief I felt disappointment. During the 24 years since my first diagnosis I have had oncology appointments every few months at first, then twice a year, and then annually. The only time I worried about recurrence was when the time for my annual mammogram and chest x-ray screening approached. Many times the tests revealed a questionable result requiring a second screening, and I had several surgical biopsies over the years. A clear screen doesn’t mean that there is no cancer; it means there isn’t a tumor big enough to see. With the false-positive screen last summer I just decided that I didn’t want to wait for the next failed screening, and my health insurance company agreed. In August I had the second mastectomy at my request, and the surprise was that the subsequent biopsy showed ductal carcinoma in situ in a previously unbiopsied section of the removed tissue. The treatment would have been a simple mastectomy, which is how it was discovered! For the second time, a suspicious occurrence had led to a life-saving discovery of cancer before it had spread.
Now double mastectomies for a single diagnosis are common, but that wasn’t the case in 1986 when I had my first surgery. My sister was diagnosed with in situ ductal carcinoma four years after my first surgery, and she remains cancer-free. We have both had the BRCA genetic test but amazingly do not appear to carry the gene. Five of my mother’s sisters had cancer, one of whom had breast cancer before middle age. Now I am 60 years old, and for the first time in my life I know that I will not die of breast cancer. I even have the proverbial shirt to prove it: Yes, these are fake. My real ones tried to kill me.
Please remember to have the recommended screenings regularly. These tests save lives. Remember that a clean test does not mean you are cancer-free, but only that there are no tumors big enough to see. Two times my cancer was discovered because of the presence of benign anomalies that led doctors to the cancer. Because of research, treatments now have fewer side effects and higher success rates than when I was in treatment 25 years ago, and research costs money. I have omitted the names of the wonderful doctors and nurses who were so helpful because the American Cancer Society isn’t in the medical advertising business, but you know who you are and I thank God for you.
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