My mom was only 30 when she was diagnosed with aggressive, stage-3 breast cancer, and she was bald before being bald was considered brave.
Though my mom’s prognosis was poor, her optimism wasn’t, so she dove headfirst into intense treatments and prepared herself to fight. She began aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments within days of her double mastectomy, and before long, her pretty, strawberry-blond hair was coming out in clumps. I was only maybe 6 or 7 at the time of her diagnosis, so witnessing the drastic effects of her treatments baffled me, to say the least.
I remember her telling me that she had cancer on our ride home in our minivan. I remember the palpable knot I felt on her chest the night before her surgery when she was explaining what was going on to me, and I remember the oxygen tank that followed her every step once her treatments began to diminish her health. I understood that she was sick, but I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of it all, probably because she didn’t want me to.
My mom was an eternal optimist. I can’t recall ever seeing her break down (though I’m sure she did) or cry about her heavy diagnosis. I don’t remember her seeming down or depressed or discouraged, even when her cancer treatments began to manifest physically.
Just a few weeks into her treatments, her hair had all but disappeared. She didn’t look upset or distraught over losing her hair, but rather relieved that it was finally all gone. As she pulled out the remaining clumps, it almost seemed like she was reclaiming the control over her life that her diagnosis had robbed her of. She didn’t look weak in that moment — she looked strong.
Though my mom was quite ill, she didn’t allow her cancer to prevent her from living her life. She continued to stroll about town, bald head and all, and to make appearances at the deli that she and my stepdad ran. She continued to make inappropriate jokes to the customers and to share her infamous laugh and smile with the world like she wasn’t terminally ill, and she continued to be active in every aspect of my life.
She didn’t allow her lack of hair to hinder her sunny disposition. If anything, she used it as a social buffer to ease the awkwardness between her and people who treated her differently because she was sick. I remember having my birthday party at a skating rink in the third grade. My mom was there, wearing a long dress and a ball cap with Mickey Mouse on it to cover her head (for the comfort of others, not herself). I remember one of my friends walking up to her and confusedly asking, “Are you bald?” My jaw dropped in that moment. I looked at my mom, humiliated for her, wondering what she was going to do. “I sure am!” she said as she removed her cap and kneeled down in front of my friend. “Do you want to rub my head for good luck?”
My friend giggled, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It was in that moment that I realized how truly strong my mom was.
After following the recent news of Shannen Doherty’s breast cancer and watching her publicly shave her head, I can’t help but to think of my own mom’s battle with breast cancer. I think about her continuing to live her life in the public while wearing the wigs that she let me style, or her attending my softball games in the summer with her Mickey cap covering her head. I think about how she went out of her way to make other people feel comfortable with her illness when she would jokingly say that she was due for a hair cut. I think about how her optimism never wavered, and her blaring Hootie & the Blowfish in her hospital room, and her letting me borrow her wheelchair to race down the halls of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I think about a million different things when I think of her, but the thing that stands out the most is her strength.
She was so real and her struggle was so raw. She passed away almost 20 years ago, but she continues to inspire me daily. Every woman who faces breast cancer has a different story, but they’re all in the same army, they’re all fighting the same war and they’re all incredibly brave.