When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents shared some difficult news with my brother and me. My mom was going to have to have a biopsy to test for breast cancer. Truthfully, I remember feeling very calm about it at the time. This happens to other people, and it doesn’t turn out to be cancer. This won’t happen to my mom, I thought – it’s just a little obstacle. But as the days passed and we waited for results, I couldn’t get it out of my head. During that time my brain managed to do a complete 180, and I went from being very confident that nothing was wrong to being quite sure that something terrible was about to happen.
When the day came to find out the results, my parents said that they would let us know right away what was up. I was in math class and found myself drawing line after line down my paper because I was so anxious. Eventually, we got let out for lunch. I got some chips and salsa (a favorite snack) but it tasted like cardboard to me. When I heard my name called to the attendance office, I felt my mouth dry up, and my palms start to sweat. They handed me a note that my parents were there to pick me up. I literally jogged back to my math class to get my things and ran out to the car. We picked my brother up and went home.
My mom had breast cancer. We all cried together as a family and talked about the details and the next step for a long time. But in a beautiful way, we got to a state of peace. We decided to go to a movie together. Sitting there with my family watching a movie at the theater in the middle of the week – feeling closer to them than ever – is one of my happiest memories.
As many people who’ve experienced this know, the “next step” with cancer is not pretty. Cancer felt to me at times like a fifth person in my house, always lurking and waiting for the wrong moment to cause sadness. My mother went through a double mastectomy and then chemotherapy during the first semester of my junior year. Chemo gave my mom hell day in and day out – disrupting her eating, sleeping, physical ability, and overall quality of life.
Truthfully, I’m not proud of how I handled myself as a daughter, friend, or person in general during that time. I escaped to a friend’s house any time I possibly could. I spent extra time at school when possible, going in early to “work on projects” and avoiding my house in general. Despite the initial closeness my family’s situation created, I felt myself putting up emotional walls. Over time, those walls extended not only from my family but to my friends, too, on occasion. In a sad way, I came to resent my family’s situation and wished that there were some way to “delete” it so I could go back to a life free of anxiety. Even sadder – I selfishly resented the loss of attention I got from my parents, and I lied to them often to be away from the house.
I didn’t really “wake up” from this mindset until my mom was joyously declared to be in remission the following spring of my junior year of high school. It felt like waking up suddenly from a bad dream: horror at the realization of what just happened followed by intense relief. The relief was short-lived though… I spent a lot of time self-reflecting on who I had become during my mom’s battle, and it made me feel immensely guilty. I made a conscious decision to flip things around: finish high school and do my best to be a better family member and person. We had a very happy summer as a family, celebrating an end to the evil behind us, and I was determined that nothing like that could bring me down again.
My mom was turning 40 that September, which was the beginning of my senior year. To commemorate this milestone and the fact that she’d beaten cancer, my family decided to do something truly monumental. We decided to climb Colorado’s Quandary Peak together. My family began training soon after we made this decision. (I didn’t train as much as I should have, turns out!) In late September, we traveled to Breckinridge, stayed in an awesome cabin with a view of the peak, and went to bed having no clue what we were in for.
We were climbing on that mountain from before sunrise to sundown. It was one of the most arduous things I’ve ever done. The altitude change was brutal, and the first snow had made the rocks we were climbing icy and slippery. After approximately 7 hours of climbing, I was ready to give up. The peak was still a 45-minute climb away, and I felt my resolve breaking down. This is an important moment in the story because just when I was ready to give up, my mom surged ahead of the group and pushed us all to the top. She was the first one to get there while we lagged behind. Afterwards, she would say that she “had to do it” and that she didn’t come all that way (both literally and figuratively) not to prove that she could do it. At the top, she took a picture holding a sign saying, “I kicked cancer’s ass!” with a huge smile on her face. The scene at the top of the mountain was something that must inspire novels or songs. I will forever be thankful that my mom’s courage and motivation got me there. This is another one of my happiest memories.
But as you already know from the title, the lessons I’ve learned didn’t end on that mountain. After coming home and being back for some time, my mom developed pain in her back. She thought she had pulled something when climbing down the mountain because of the iciness. Her doctor put her through physical therapy to help it, but after a few months, it wasn’t getting any better. This time, I immediately felt my intuition telling me that the cancer was back. I think we all did, but we didn’t realize what exactly was wrong until February of my senior year.
My memory of the timeline is fuzzy, but I remember my mom having one of her first back spasms in mid-February. She would clutch her back and wince in pain if she moved certain ways. She had been teaching first-graders, but was having trouble bending over to help them with their work in class. Every day, it got worse and worse. One day, I was in the living room, and I heard her cry out from her room upstairs. I went up there and she had tears in her eyes and was leaning against her bed. I started crying because I could sense it was a turning point.
A few days later, I had a dress rehearsal for my senior play. When I got home my parents were sitting in the living room to give me the news. She had tumors growing on her spine. They were so big that they had broken her vertebrae. Her spine was literally breaking. She had two years to live. The cancer wasn’t fixable.