Updated: Oct 3, 2018
My mother lost her 2.5 year battle with breast cancer in 1993. She was 53 years old. I was 29 and had an amazingly supportive husband, and three children under the age of five. I had my first mammogram at age 28. Was it early? Of course – but my mother taught me to be proactive and assertive in staying on top of my health, so I would be sure to catch and treat any challenge before it was too late. So, since this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I’d share my last mammogram experience…but first, some history.
My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She was an Ashkenazi Jewish European lady who lived in Queens, New York. That in itself put her in a high risk category for developing breast cancer. She was always giving of herself and taking care of others, but as with most women, she neglected to take care of herself.
I remember the day she called me asking me to make an appointment for her with my OB-GYN. You see, her doctor had passed away years earlier and she had neglected to seek out a new doctor to continue her care. We went to my doctor the Friday after Passover, and – wouldn’t you know it – the doctor felt a lump and aspirated it to have a biopsy done. Of course, we had to wait till Monday for the anxiously-anticipated results. Her mammogram showed nothing except that her breasts were quite cystic.
I had a nightmare that first night! In it, I believed my mother was getting sicker and sicker, and growing thinner and thinner. We were taking her from doctor to doctor, each trying to pacify me into believing she was well. Then while we rested on a park bench, I saw her last breath leaving her. I slapped her hard, trying to wake her up. Instead, her last breath directed itself into my nose and mouth. Frightened, I tried slapping that breath back out of me.
I woke up in shock. In my heart, I knew the results. I put on my sneakers, left my family, and just ran. I ran like Forrest Gump. I never ran before, and I didn’t know where I was going, but I ran and I ran…then I cried and I cried. Needless to say, Monday’s results came in as malignant…and the cancer had already metastasized to her bones. The doctor felt her cancer must have been growing for two and a half years. We were told that it could have been exacerbated by the fact that she became a widow at 48-years-old.
Her illness was a secret to all of her friends, and some family members – especially her mother, who lived overseas and whom she didn’t want to burden. I respected her need for privacy, and her dislike of people excluding her from social events or feeling sorry for her. I kept her cancer a secret for two and a half years. During her final week in the hospital, I sensed I needed to reach out to my aunts and grandmother. I wasn’t sure how much longer my mother had. They came, held hands and cried. My mother knew. One night, I sensed I needed to stay with my mother…little did I know it was her last night.
While she slowly slipped into a semi-coma, the nurse told me that the last thing to go was her hearing. I went to my mother told her I loved her, asked for forgiveness and thanked her for two things:
~For giving me life, and
~For teaching me how to prolong my life
I have taken her lesson to heart, getting mammograms every year and having sonograms
twice a year…just in case. I also took the BRCA 1 & 2 genetic tests after all four of my kids were born, ready to do a radical mastectomy if need be. The tests came back negative – but that did not deter me from continuing to have my “girls” checked twice a year.
All was well until this year at the age of 53, the same age at which my mother lost her battle to breast cancer, there was a tiny change that was detected by my amazing radiologist, Dr. Barbara Edelstein in New York City. She suspected it was benign, but didn’t want to take any chances. I had faith in her, and in G-d.
She sent me to Dr. Kathy Plesser, whose skillful hands took a biopsy from my breast. The pain was minimal, and for that I thank her. She also believed the tissues would turn out to be benign…but once again, I had to wait for the results. Thankfully, unlike the days waiting for my mother’s results, I felt a sense of calmness within.
When the report came back, it revealed that I had Atypical Ductal Hyperplasia, a pre-cancerous cell. I was told that if I didn’t have it all removed, I risked the possibility of having breast cancer within a year. Needless to say, I made an appointment for a lumpectomy.
I told a few close friends of my prognosis. They asked me if I was afraid, and I told them I wasn’t. I told them I was grateful and blessed to have caught this early. With that thought, it became the impetus for my friends to go get their mammies checked.
Dr. Alexander Swistel at Cornell Weil was my breast surgeon. There are many doctors who see their patients for 10 minutes and walk out. Dr. Swistel was patient and thorough in explaining the procedure and possible results. He said the small mass still had a 15% chance of being malignant but that he, too, felt optimistic. The surgery went well and I was back home in no time. Strangely, I had no pain. I had a bottle of Percocet and Tylenol PM near my bed, but never needed to use them. My final results? Benign.
Dr. Swistel also suggested I get a new Heredity Cancer test. It’s been a while since my BRCA 1 and 2 tests, so he felt I should get an update. My gynecologist, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, whom I also see annually, was able to administer the test. As of now, I am waiting for those results.
Besides my mother and G-d, I thank my friend Naava Parker, a breast cancer survivor who referred me to Dr. Edelstein. Dr. Edelstein found Naava’s cancer when no one else did, and I know of so many other lives that Dr. Edelstein has also saved. During Naava’s journey, she (an illustrator) and her survivor friend, Rochelle Hirsch (an author), used writing and illustration as their outlet to heal and help others in the process. The result of this creative collaboration was the story LUMPS AND BUMPS: A Breast Cancer Story for Children, which was chosen for Top Choices Summer 2009. The story describes how a mother diagnosed with breast cancer explains the disease to her young child.
Lumps and Bumps is told from the perspective of a little girl who learns that her mom has breast cancer. “The story is told in a positive, compassionate way that is sensitive to children’s thoughts and feelings,” says Parker, a teacher and artist. “When I began doing research I discovered that there was very little available on this topic for children, and the few books out there were very frightening,” adds Hirsch, a speech pathologist.
The book can be purchased for $9.95 plus shipping and handling, and a percentage of all proceeds is always donated to an organization working to prevent or treat cancer.
We cannot fight this disease alone. If this story inspired you to get your “girls” or any other “high risk” body part checked, please do so. And please share this story with your friends. If you have been screened already, please comment below or email me about your results. In addition, if you have Liked or Follow my Art Mends Hearts social media pages on Facebook,
Twitter and Instagram, please share this article, then comment under this post – I would love to thank you with a gift of a 30 minute consultation.
Unlike my mother, I share my journey to help others take charge of their bodies. Stop making excuses! If the whole subject feels terrifying to you, don’t let it stop you. Let me help you work through your fear, and find your power to take action! It really is possible, I promise.
Let my mother’s lesson of learning to prolong your life become your mantra, too.