Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

My Cancer Story: My Mom's Cancer Helped Me Battle My Own Disease

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Today was a perfect day. The air had that distinct crisp fall feeling. The weather was ideal, but there was more to the day than light breezes, minimal humidity (the perfect hair day), and limited cloud coverage.

Today was probably the first day that my mom and I spent fully together.

There have been plenty of times in the last few months that she’s been in the kitchen doing bills and me on the couch watching Food Network, or she on the deck reading a magazine and me laying out in the sun. We’ve been feet away from each other, so many times, but never really together. But today was different; today was special.

My mom is, in all senses of the word, my hero. She isn’t a CEO or exec at some firm in Manhattan; she isn’t a gourmet chef who experiments with awesome food creations during family dinners. She is, however, a two-time breast cancer survivor. And, not only has she battled her own disease, but she has walked with me, hand-in-hand, in my own struggle with addiction. Those things, alone, rank her above any other woman in my mind.

The childhood I experienced was absolutely the suburban upper-middle class cliché. My younger sister and I grew up in central Jersey, right outside Princeton, raised by our two parents (dad, an attorney; mom, a “homemaker”). My little sister was the dancer and teacher-in-the-making. I was the athlete and somewhat of a wild child. Everything was always normal. We participated in the neighborhood carpools after daily lacrosse practices, we went to SAT tutoring once a week our junior years of high school (sucked, by the way). We went on family vacations every summer to places like Europe, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and Maine. Life for us was always solid; we were always good.

But twice, my family received the devastating diagnosis that our anchor, my mom, had breast cancer. To this day, actually typing the word “cancer” makes me shiver. Most of the time, I can’t even say the word.

The first time my mom was sick, I was eight years old and my sister five, the second I was 12 and my sister nine. Both times, she lost her hair. Actually, we shaved it. Both times, she wore a wig that we named “Mabel.” Both times, she was sicker than I could have ever imagined, throwing up and emaciated. But both times, we had no idea she was even close to as sick as she was. She went through surgery (x2), chemotherapy (x2), radiation (x2—she has the tattoos to prove it; and uses them as a reason to hate mine) and, eventually, had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

But during all of these medical procedures, she and my dad rarely showed an ounce of weakness or doubt that she wouldn’t heal and get better. Life continued as normal, both times, in the Campisano household.

No, cancer isn’t what rocked our family—it was my own struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Now, the focus had shifted onto me; whether I would live, or succumb to a different type of illness—one that was more extremely complex and psychological. There wasn’t a specific medicine or treatment that would halt my addiction or stop it completely. And this was scary. For us all.

My mom and I had always been close, but during this time, our relationship collapsed. Our communication ceased, honesty disappeared, trust evaporated. I was living a secret life she had no idea about. And when she found out that I was caught in my own disease, one that seemingly is self-induced, both of our worlds exploded.

I felt I was disappointing my mom to no end. Even during this time, I knew in the back of my mind what a struggle she had experienced. I knew that she went to extreme lengths to “get better” and combat the cancer that could have destroyed her and taken her from my sister, dad, and me. I knew everything she had gone through—the immense pain and sickness she experienced, the ugliness she must have felt when losing her hair and the parts of her body that deemed her a “woman.”

But we both knew that I was continuing to use drugs and alcohol to destroy my own body—something so precious that should be treasured. It hurt us both more than words can say. It was so hard for me to come to terms with the fact that my mom was forced to deal with her cancer, twice, and I was ruining my life through a “disease” that seemed to have been my entire fault. In reality, once I was in the grips of addiction, it wasn’t my fault—but my head goes directly to guilt and shame, especially when it comes to my family.

Throughout my struggle with addiction, though, we were able to finally look at her struggle with breast cancer—two diseases, different in definition, similar in emotional turmoil. We participated in family therapy sessions together and worked hard to learn about each disease, both scientifically and personally. My mom was able to stand by me—with the strength she used to combat those cancer cells—to guide me through my own fight.

She chose to maintain a sense of understanding and patience with me. She was angry, with the disease and with me, understandably. But we fought through it. My mom read relevant literature, she opened up to me about her own fight with cancer, and she continues to attend Al-Anon meetings (AA-esque meetings for loved ones of those struggling with addiction).

My mom has shown me, through her actions and reactions to life, how important it is to remember that there is a light, always, at the end of the darkness. Today, when the freight train in my head rolls through, my first impulse is to call her. No one in the entire world has better advice; no one cares more or worries more. Whether we are dealing with epic obstacles like breast cancer and addiction or smaller disasters like lost credit cards and expensive gym memberships, we face it now together.

This October day may have been “normal” for a million people in New York City. But for my mom and me, it was a new beginning. It wasn’t just a day spent buying great new things for my new Manhattan apartment and stuffing our faces with goat cheese omelets and turkey/smoked gouda/avocado sandwiches. Today was the day we finally reconnected; finally felt a sense of calmness and normalcy between us. There wasn’t that elephant in the room that was “disease”—instead, the focus was on the future, and how bright it had become.

My mom has not only battled breast cancer and won, twice, but she has helped me, without wavering, to become who I am right now.