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Her Story: How My Mother’s Breast Cancer Affected My Outlook on Life

In honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, social media blows up with new profile pictures and articles to support the cause. Seeing all of the public support, though comforting to know it’s there, usually makes my mother nauseous as it recalls bad memories from her past.

In October 2007, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since the disease runs in my family, she was tested for the BRCA I gene when she was a young woman. Incidentally, she carried the gene along with many other women in my family, so she took precautionary measures to ensure her health. After another routine mammogram, she finally got the news none of us wanted to hear.

I was in 5th grade and as a 10-year-old girl, I always felt like the world was ending. Whether it be my parents saying I couldn’t go to a birthday party or I got punished for fighting with my sisters, nothing was ever fair. On a crisp October afternoon, I, for the first time, experienced what it really felt like for your world to come crashing down and for the unfairness of life to prevail.

Rebecca, on the right, with her sisters, cousin, mother, and aunt 

My sisters and I raced home from the bus stop, which was a block away from our house, kicking through the piles of freshly fallen leaves. When we approached the garage, I saw extra cars parked outside. I realized my dad was home from work and my mom’s best friend was at our house. I was skeptical, but doubted anything was out of the ordinary.

The house was dark when we walked in. My dad was in his office and my mom and her friend were speaking in hushed voices behind her closed bedroom door. I bounced in the room, yelling my “hellos” as my dad ran over to ask me to quiet down. He brought me up to my room and fought tears as he explained that my mom’s mammogram results showed a tumor. I stared blankly at my father as my world stopped. I wanted to run to my mom and hug her, wanting to never let go, but he forced me to stay put. I was confused, frantic questions bouncing around my brain. Would she be okay? Why now? What happened? Finally, I spoke, but the only words I could muster were, “Do I have to go to dance class today?” as if staying home for the next three hours would have cured my mom.

As the weeks passed, more of my friends found out about my mother’s cancer.  No other 10-year-old knew how to comfort me. Actually, many adults didn’t even know how to handle this situation, so when they tried to be sympathetic, it just felt awkward. I recieved many of those sad expressions from adults as they thought to themselves, “poor girl, how sad, but thank God it’s not me.” My parents forced me to see the school counselor like it would help me cope with my mother’s disease.

The weekend of my mother’s double masectomy, my grandparents took my sisters and I to New York City to see a Legally Blonde the Musical on Broadway so we wouldn’t spend the weekend thinking about it. Anything could have happened. Those days away were filled with anxiety and terrifying, as we had no clue what was happening at home, presumably too young to understand the severity of what was going on. I wish I could have been by my mom’s side the whole time, but I know she didn’t want me to be preoccupied with her illness. The surgery went well, which was great news for us all. There looked like there would be a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel, until the first day of chemotherapy.

So her silky blonde hair wouldn’t fall out in huge, awkward clumps during the next few weeks, my mother decided to shave her head before the chemo started. We gathered in our kitchen and our family’s hairdresser came to our house with a razor to shave my mom’s head. What a weird thing to watch. I sat across the table and my mom’s friend grabbed my hand and asked if I was doing okay. I nodded slowly as my eyes locked with my mom’s balding head. Of course I wasn’t okay! My mom had cancer and she was shaving her head! How is that okay to anyone?!  I struggled with not breaking down into tears in front of my loved ones. I didn’t want to be scared; it would make my mom even more upset under her tough skin.  I had to be strong.


Rebecca's mother

“You actually can pull this look off!” my aunt exclaimed as my mom took her first peek into the mirror. No she couldn’t. No woman is meant to be bald.

My mom went for her first chemo treatment while I was at school. When I returned home, it looked like she was dead on the couch, for lack of a better way to put it. Her body was having trouble reacting to the poison injected through her veins. She didn’t move from the family room all night. That was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry as he, my sisters, and I huddled in bed together, scared for what would happen next.

The seasons kept changing and the weeks flew by and my mom slowly but surely made a full recovery. She put up the strongest fight I have ever seen. No one could tackle cancer like she did. She made countless hard decisions with a confidence I had never seen before that eventually lead to her health today.

Cancer is scary. There is no other way to put it. It’s terrifying and awful and depressing and a slew of other negative adjectives. To me, I thought my entire life was ending, but somehow my mom kept it together so well. I felt scared and alone. Every day the thought of no longer having a mom made me cry. She, while her body was failing, encouraged us every day that everything would get better. She was the driving force that kept my young mind sane. She taught us that you can do anything you want, even beat cancer.

Seven years later, my mom is healthy and happy. That year was the worst of my life, but my mom showed me strength and courage I didn’t know was possible. This story is the real awareness I hope to share with women everywhere today. Changing your profile picture on Facebook to a pink ribbon does nothing for the health of young women, though it is comforting to see. I encourage everyone to get checked regularly because early detection saved my mother’s life. No one wants to be part of a statistic that they died from the most powerful killer of women worldwide.

My mom is my hero. She has inspired me to do everything I can to succeed and to face my challenges head on, not quitting until I win. She is the strongest woman I know. I love her and feel so proud every time I say my mom is a cancer survivor. She survived one of the nastiest curve-balls life can throw at you. This October, don’t post a status that says “feel your boobies.” No one cares. Think of those who have beaten, or those who unfortunately haven’t beaten, breast cancer and hold them close to your heart. Life is a scary thing and to overcome it is one of the bravest things someone can do.

*Photos courtesy of Rebecca Cohen. 

Though my byline says Rebecca, I prefer to be called Becca. I am a journalism major and Spanish minor at The University of Maryland. I love to dance, I speak too loudly, and can barely make it through the day without a nap. I've been told I am very sarcastic and I know I'm shorter than everyone else. I'm a professional Snapchatter, huge dog lover, and spend most of my time rewatching TV shows I've already seen too many times on Netflix. I am funny, but not funny enough to achieve my dream of being an SNL cast member. I hope you enjoy what I have to say and if you don't, at least pretend. Follow me on social media! Twitter: @beccacohen_ Instagram: @becca_cohenblog: https://rebeccamcohen.wordpress.com/
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