I almost called this one “Baggage” because – while this is at its core a history of my family’s experiences of cancer – I recognize the possibility reality that I carry it like baggage.
When I was young, my parents would alternate summer vacations. One year we would get together with my dad’s side of the family in Colorado, and the other we would visit my mom’s side of the family in Missouri. They were visits filled with connection to family and hearing all the stories and histories. One that I heard was that my maternal grandmother’s first husband – and father to my mom – had died of a brain tumor. This happened when my mom was 12 years old.
Fast forward a few years to when I was was about 11 years old. My dad – who worked in the film industry – was hired to shoot a film in the area around Tucson, AZ and we all went out there and lived in an apartment for a couple of months to be with him. And what I didn’t know at the time is that it was on that trip that my mom found a lump in her breast.
Sparing the details, her medical team misdaignosed her; and after she died justified the misdiagnosis with the claim that cancer is terminal as soon as the first cancer cell divides.
I was 12 years old. The same age she was when her dad died.
I remember vividly the day. I was in school, and my dad came to pick me up. This was in itself unusual because I took the bus. But as I walked out of the gate to where the busses all lined up, there he was with my two young sisters in tow.
And he was crying. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.
He told me what happened and the world shifted. The world changed. Forever. I felt broken and alone and robbed and angry and desperate and empty.
I’ve always been someone who uses words – especially written words – to express deep emotion. In my adolescent years, there was a lot of poetry and part of what I wrote after she died was this:
I’m as free as the wind on a summer’s day,
much like the one when she passed away.
I am a child who has no mother.
I am a child who could love no other
like the mother who passed away.
And so it is with this emotional history (baggage) that I faced a cancer diagnosis when my son was 12 years old and and while I was under the care of the same organization that misdiagnosed my mom.
With that said, do I allow this history to define me? Do I allow it to control me? No.
Does it still affect me? Does it still bring tears and sorrow and shock and grief? Does it still surprise me and overwhelm me? Yes.
And so it is with this history, this baggage, these memories, this paradigm that I have journeyed through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is in this history that I wonder why I got something easy when she didn’t, and wonder if something more sinister might be on the horizon.
On the other hand, my dad has had seemingly dozens of minor skin cancers cut or frozen or burned off. He’s still healthy and helpful and hopeful, and his mom – now in her late 90s – is about to celebrate another birthday.
And so some days are easier than others. Some days the baggage is easier to handle. It doesn’t mean there is no baggage. It means there are tools to help manage.
And that’s a start.