There are many facts and data about breast cancer. About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer. The mortality rate of breast cancer is high in African American women. But all these facts, figures, and charts don’t really hit you unless you are someone close to your get the disease. For me, it was my grandmother.
It would be an insult to not talk about my maternal grandmother without mentioning the fact that she is one of the strongest people I know. Born and raised in Jamaica, she became the mother of 8 children, four of whom would die way before their time. I had learned quickly that she was the center of our family, the unit that kept it together. We were never able to be close due to long distances, the cost of airfare and conflicting life events. But it was our talks on the phone that made my world. Connecting by cheap phone cards bought in close by bodegas, she will tell me every time that she loved me and that she was proud of me, even on days when I felt like I didn’t deserve it.
The world didn’t stop for me in April 2010 when I found the news. It was rotating at the same speed it always had. However, I was frozen in place. The presence of a lump is not just a physical intrusion but an intrusion into the minds of you and your loved ones. Not just the shock but the mind rush of all the questions this discovery may mean. Phone calls became more frequent filled with hushed whispers of what ifs, prayers and the hold back of tears.
As quickly as its presence entered our stream of consciousness, the plan to take care of it was initiated. My grandmother had her mastectomy in July 2010. She may have wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. But it wasn’t over in our minds. Despite a year and more of news of her being cancer-free, we were always worried by that it could come back and rear its ugly head, in ways we couldn’t stop.
You see, when you’re not affected, you can digest any information on the disease easily. The articles about studies,the news clips about new technologies or even the posters that reminded you how to self-check. But when it hits you or someone you love, everything becomes directives you have to complete. You need to be aware 24/7. You need to avoid everyday things just because of a hint of a connection to the disease. You need to eat this ingredient five times a day because someone’s aunt swears it prevents it. Finding a lump didn’t seem like an ‘if’ anymore but more of a ‘when’ and in your head getting the disease turns probability into eventuality.
But Grandma made it the next year and the next and the next after that. She was still the person who asked me about my day, who wanted to know if I was doing okay at school. Who still told me that she loved me. And that was all that I needed to get by, to know that my grandmother had persevered.
Fast forward to sophomore year of college, I called my mother telling her I got a spot to a study abroad trip in the summer, how I was going to see if I can spend time with the family in Jamaica right after and so much more. But her reaction was subdued and not with the excited fire I’ve always expected from her. It was afterward, with a phone call from my sister that I found out the truth: My lovely grandmother had died a couple of days earlier.
There were the normal feelings that occur after hearing such news. The regret of the lack of time together. The many conversations I wished we had. But there was the gnawing idea in the back of our mind that it had come back, and we didn’t do enough to stop it. But, her death was due to an unrelated cause. Even so, I plan on getting on tested when I can and when it is best advised. I would be doing a disservice to those before me to not take it seriously. I will also take the time to spend and appreciate those I love.