A Family Affair

breast cancer awareness month

This guest post is written by Bella, who provides a different perspective on breast cancer. Bella is the adult daughter of a mother diagnosed twice with two different cancers, and has experienced all the fear, anxiety and worry associated with a cancer diagnosis in the family.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Let me tell you, as someone who is dealing with breast cancer in a family member (and as someone who has to combat cancer for the rest of her life BEFORE she even gets it), cancer awareness months are complete bullshit. People with cancer, and people who are related to people with cancer, deal with cancer every single day, when it’s not a cancer awareness month.

The worst day of my life was 29 January 2014. I was 17 days past my 41st birthday. It was worse than the day I was diagnosed with fibroids in 2006 and my then partner left me. It was worse than the five days I spent in hospital to have my huge fibroids (the largest was 1.5 kgs, the size of a foetus at six months gestation!) removed in 2013. It was worse than the day that Dad called me to say that they’d had to put a beloved family dog to sleep because of spinal cancer. It was worse than the day I had a colonoscopy and the gastroenterologist removed a benign polyp.

29 January 2014 was the day I had a mammogram. It was the day the radiologist found a suspicious lump in my breast. How was I going to tell my parents that I possibly had breast cancer? My family has a convoluted history of “female health issues”. Mum had fibroids ablated, and one of my younger sisters also needed fibroid ablation. When I finally sought treatment, I couldn’t have my fibroids ablated because they were too large; I’d left it too long to have them treated with anything other than major abdominal surgery. Mum hadn’t told me of the fibroid issues, and my maternal grandmother needed a hysterectomy in 1952 after abnormal uterine bleeding after her second pregnancy (there was probably no other known treatment then). My maternal medical history involves a history of colon issues as well.

My mum was then diagnosed with breast cancer 3.5 years ago … she’d delayed a scheduled mammogram for four months and the mammogram found a lump… Mum had a mastectomy and lymph nodes removed. If she hadn’t left it so long, she may have been able to have a different form of treatment. My parents didn’t want to worry their five kids about the diagnosis until Mum had the all clear from surgery, especially after Dad had previously had a stent put in his heart, after his brother had a heart attack and brother’s his wife had a quadruple bypass, and my Dad’s sister had a brain aneurism that needed surgical intervention.

So I didn’t find out my Mum had cancer until after her first surgery. Then my mum broke her elbow and needed more surgery. Her bones were “probably” weakened by her chemotherapy, and she needed pins put in her elbow, which she’ll need for the rest of her life. Then her oncologist found colon cancer. Mum’s gastroenterologist tried to save part of her colon, but couldn’t. Mum’s now had a complete colectomy and a stoma installed. In other words, my mum now poops in a bag outside her body and she will do so for the rest of her life. My siblings and I were told about Mum’s colon cancer before treatment began.

Timing is a bit iffy for me over the last few years have just been a bit of a blur with all the medical treatment my mum has needed. I’m not 100% sure that my mum’s fibroids, breast cancer or colon cancer were unrelated, given my maternal family medical history.

So, I had a mammogram and colonoscopy because it was recommended for people who had an immediate family history or breast cancer and colon cancer. After my mammogram, I had a fine needle biopsy done a couple of weeks later, to determine whether the lump was cancer, or not. It turned out that the lump was just a cyst. I didn’t have to tell my parents I had cancer. I didn’t need a lumpectomy and I didn’t need a mastectomy. The relief at the time was significant, but of course  given my immediate family history, I’m going to have to be tested regularly for the rest of my life for breast cancer and colon cancer, as are my siblings. Trouble is, some breast cancer screenings will be “refused” before a woman turns 40, despite a family history (as one of my sisters has found out).

I write this having just found out that my mum has the all clear from her oncologist and after I tell her that I have received the all clear from my own cancer specialists. I’m 41, I’m single, and I want children. I’ve just told my mum, a staunch Roman Catholic, that I now want children and I’m probably going to get pregnant by myself as a single woman via sperm donation. Mum told Dad. I didn’t think they’d accept my decision. Now they are both sending me recommendations for fertility specialists and articles about pregnancy health and lactation for “older mums”. Parents are WEIRD PEOPLES! Seriously. Parents are weird peoples.

But, as an adult child of someone being treated for cancer, it is easier to talk about medical issues as they happen and even easier to talk medical issues before they happen. The discussion will, no doubt, be different for parents with young children.

Families need to have discussions about medical histories. Whether your chid is young or old, parents need to find a way to discuss medical issues with their children. Children need to find a way to discuss medical issues with their parents. Please ask about medical histories! If parents don’t want to talk about it, tell them it will save them loads of worry about their children! If children don’t want to talk about it, tell them it will save them loads of worry about their parents!

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