When “1 in 8” was no longer just a statistic to me

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I teamed up with my mother (now in remission from breast cancer) to share her story – and my story – about the road from diagnosis to recovery and the important role that support systems played throughout.
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It’s estimated that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I tune out statistics like this. It’s not because I don’t care or that I’m seeking a path of naivety, but because there’s a certain part of me (and likely in a lot of us) that feels untouchable, immune to these types of curveballs that life can throw. You hear about something horrible that happens across the globe and might think: this is heartbreaking, I wish there was something I could do to help. And so you find some way to raise awareness for the cause – maybe join a walkathon, donate needed supplies, or organize a fundraiser – but until it’s close to home, practically clawing at your front door, there’s a certain degree of intangibility to it that makes it feel far away. This is how I felt about breast cancer – until it came knocking, that is.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2012. I was in shock; paralyzed by the fear of wondering if my mother would ever see me get married or have kids. My mother on the other hand, appeared strong as ever, pragmatic even, in her approach to searching for the best treatment option. My mother is by far the strongest woman I know. She meets adversity with courage and more often than not, worries about how obstacles she’s facing will affect her family and friends rather than herself.

It happened that we had a connection to a nearby hospital through a family friend, a nurse there. She provided support and direction and as a result, my mother soon found a medical team, including an oncologist and surgeon, whom she trusted and who provided her with the information she needed to make an informed treatment decision.

After her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, I moved back home for a couple of months to help my mother through recovery – handling her medications, emptying her drain, tucking her into the recliner at bedtime so she could sleep partially upright, and of course scolding her for trying to do too much too soon (always have to watch those mothers!). I would drive her to the doctors’ office and join appointments to take detailed notes so she could have a dialogue with her doctor and absorb the information rather than worrying about making sure she didn’t forget to write something down. I substituted as the house sous-chef, making dinners with my limited kitchen skills and often spending weeknights watching Jeopardy. I knew I couldn’t provide her with every form of support she needed – like what might come through talking to others who had been diagnosed– but I was happy knowing that I was there for her.

In January of 2013, having received an Oncotype DX test score in the intermediate range (the dreaded “gray area”), my mother joined a local breast cancer support group, looking for guidance. She was ‘on the fence’ so-to-speak in choosing chemotherapy versus an alternative treatment as it affected her chances of recurrence. At the support group she met a woman whose test score on the same test fell within the low range (supposedly “safe” area) and so, the woman had opted not to do chemotherapy. One and a half years later she found herself back in support group though, deemed terminally ill by her doctors, after learning that her cancer had metastasized.

Attending support group that day and in the process discovering that woman’s fate was the deciding factor for her: My mom chose to move forward with chemotherapy as added insurance in her fight against breast cancer. Soon after, she had her head shaved proactively, wanting to stave off the looming threat of watching her hair fall out little-by-little.

Even though I was so closely involved in all of this, it wasn’t until I received an email last week that I really stopped to think about the role support systems play in helping people deal with health issues such as breast cancer and more specifically, the role they played in helping my mother and I through the ordeal, each in our own way. The email, sent by the NDEV Mobile Developer team, referenced HerStory, a mobile app dedicated to giving women the opportunity to share and listen to spoken stories about breast cancer and mastectomy. My mom may not have had this app to turn to at her time of diagnosis, but she did have a strong network of family and friends, including a friend whom she had accompanied to all of her chemotherapy appointments just a few years earlier. She had a knowledgeable oncologist and experienced surgeon, a support group, and even a day of pampering provided by the organization Look Good Feel Better®.

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My support network included family and friends whom I could lean on to help me cope. I also found another outlet through participating in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day walk last year in Boston, during which my team and I walked 60 miles over three days and contributed more than $21,000 in donations. Some people may find that it’s a mobile app or website that will help them through their diagnosis and treatment, or maybe it’s one of their doctors who will provide the information and comfort they need; or maybe they’ll find writing in a journal to be cathartic. My intent is not to preach that you follow a certain path in your fight against breast cancer – or any adversity for that matter – it’s to remind you that there are support systems out there for everyone who needs one and they come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re the one personally facing a diagnosis or you’re a family, friend or caregiver, you deserve your own means of support.

Today, my mother is cancer free and is looking forward to spending as much time as possible with her grandchildren (not from me – don’t get any ideas, Mom!). And although I will miss the droll comments she would make after wearing her wig for a few hours on the boat during a hot summer day, I think that’s something I can manage.

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Melissa Dirth

About Melissa Dirth

In her role as Social Media Strategist, Melissa oversees Nuance’s corporate social media presence, providing insight on the company’s overarching social strategy. She collaborates with both corporate and divisional stakeholders to determine and implement best practices, create engaging social campaigns and amplify Nuance’s brand story. Melissa received her B.S. from Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, graduating magna cum laude as a marketing major with a double-minor in communication and psychology. Melissa has been a dog-lover all her life, finding it hard to not spoil her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bailey. She enjoys traveling, as well as boating on Lake Winnipesaukee in the summer months.