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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

My Cancer Story: What I Learned From My Mom's Cancer

I remember the day my mom brought home Sharie and Jillian. They were new members of our family, and we were skeptical at first. But we figured they deserved a chance. We could try them on for a while and see what we thought. They both seemed quiet and a little air-headed, but you could tell from their hair that they had completely different personalities.

As soon as I saw their pale, lifeless faces, I decided that they needed a makeover. Not yet old enough to own makeup, I dove into my mom's drawer. Sharie’s curly locks called for some serious glamour: red lipstick, a bit of blush, some funky colored eye shadow, and an obscure pair of diamond-studded fake eyelashes. Jillian got a more understated look to match her short, straight ‘do. In the end, they both looked fabulous, worthy of being put on display. Which they were—for the next year and a half, Sharie and Jillian sat on my mom's dresser, their newly decorated Styrofoam heads holding my mother’s wigs.

This is my most vivid memory from the time my mom had breast cancer. Sure, there are the memories of the days after she had undergone a particularly bad treatment, when we would tiptoe around the creaky wood floors upstairs whispering, "Shhh, Mom's sleeping." There are recollections of watching my mom's hair slowly fall out, and then finally riding in the car with her to get her head shaved. Early on, we had a family meeting so my parents could announce, “Your mom has cancer,” and then another one later to tell us, “The radiation didn’t work, so we’re going to try chemo.” I'm not even sure now if all of these memories are real or if they are just made up from what I believe cancer memories should involve.

Whatever the case may be, they are weak memories compared to those of the wigs, the hats, and the scarves—the things my mom used to cover her hairless head. She didn't really like any of them, but I loved them all. Whenever I would hear her complain about wearing a hat, I would snatch it off her head and put it on mine, observing myself in the mirror:

“I don’t see why you don’t like them, they’re so cute!”

“Well you’re a hat person, Erin,” she would reply, smiling at me.

I didn’t know what made someone a “hat person,” but apparently she wasn’t one. Even so, she always wore something when she went out. At home she didn’t care as much. We all knew what was going on, so it didn’t matter if she left her head bare around us. But even with the effects of her disease so apparent, what was hurting my mom never bothered me.

For the most part, my daily routine went unchanged. I would spend the day at school, then come home to find my mom on the couch—“resting,” as she called it. Sometimes that meant sleeping, but more often she was awake and ready to hear about my day. When my dad came home we all had dinner together, then had family time—me reading Harry Potter out loud or us all watching Nick at Night—before going to bed. No chronically absent parents. No extra burden placed on me and my siblings.

Granted, my brother and sister were probably too young to do much. At only four and six years old, they didn’t even know what cancer was and certainly couldn’t be expected to pick up too much slack for my mom. But I was 12, and a mature 12 at that. I should have grasped what was going on and been more helpful to my parents. All the things I could have done—taken care of my siblings, gotten myself ready for school, made dinners for the family—I didn’t. I just continued living as I had before cancer entered our lives.

At times I’ve been tempted to blame my parents for my lack of inclusion in my mom’s struggle. It was almost like they were hiding it from me, like they didn’t think I could handle the difficulties they were facing.

Other times I’ve wonder if my lack of concern during this struggle was my fault. I was a middle school girl wrapped up in my own world. During the year and a half that my mom was undergoing treatment, I became a teenager, started shaving my legs, found my first boyfriend, and mapped out my future as an interior designer. I was very focused on me. It didn't bother me that mom was going to the hospital—as long as there was someone around to drive me to my friend's house. I wasn't concerned when my dad took us on vacation while she stayed home—I was excited to go to camp!

But I think this is what my parents wanted.

They wanted a normal childhood for me and my siblings. They didn’t feel like we should have to worry about our mom not being around in a year or think about the crazy chemicals being pumped into her body. They preferred that we decorate mannequin heads and parade our brother through the house wearing a woman's wig. They wanted us to laugh, and they wanted to laugh right along with us. I don't think they wanted cancer to infect our lives, too.

It wasn’t until I was completing my college applications that I realized what little effect my mom’s stint with cancer had on me. At the time, I wished that it had. I thought that if it had been more traumatic I could have gained something from it. Maybe a better understanding of the bad things in the world would help me really appreciate the good. Or maybe the idea of not having one of my loved ones around would help me treasure all the time I have with them. And if I had learned all these things through a traumatic experience with cancer, I could write a damned good application essay about it.

But I made it through my college applications with less cliché, and more meaningful, experiences. And I realized that I never needed a dramatic story with a moral at the ending. I learned and grew, not because of my mother's disease, but in spite of it. My bond with my family grew more by laughing together than by worrying together. I learned to appreciate how great my life was because my parents let me live a wonderful one, not because some destructive little cells made me realize how bad things could be. For my family, cancer was the bump in the road that we drove right over, laughing and singing all along, and then forgot about a couple miles further. And while I’m sure the road was more than a little bumpier for my mom, she never faltered in keeping on down the road.

One thing did come out of my mom’s time with cancer. With all her extra time at home, my mom started her own business. Its goal was to help women who were dissatisfied with their lives to figure out what would make them happy. Its name: Emergo, which means “to emerge.” I remember taking her picture for the brochure. Standing next to a tree in our backyard, wearing Jillian and a big smile, my mom didn’t look like a woman suffering from cancer. She didn’t look like a woman suffering from anything. She had taken on cancer and emerged no worse for the wear, only wiser.

And I guess now that I’ve emerged, too—through the stages of self-centered pre-teen and self-interested college applicant to become the young woman I am today. And I am ready to write my “cancer story.” Not one full of strife or drama, blame or vanity—the types of accounts that would have come if I had tried to write this at an earlier time in my life. I am able to write the true story of how my parents did hide cancer from me, not because they didn’t think I could handle it, but because they didn’t think I should have to.

For all this and more, I thank them.

Photo of mom and daughter courtesy of Shutterstock.