I want to pay tribute to the strong women in my family who experienced breast cancer.
|Breast cancer has followed our family around like an elusive spider that builds a web, is defeated then its ghost returns to haunt us. I am honored to tell our story.
As a little girl, I remember visiting my Grandma Agnes in the hospital. My Mom encouraged me to kiss her. She looked as white as the sheets and had a cold, paper thin cheek. I was so frightened by the scrawny hand that reached lovingly for me. After that, I was sure I had "caught cancer". Now, I believe it must have hurt her to see the fright in my eyes.
Agnes Donahue Pollie was my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1897 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My grandfather, Mitchell, and she were wed when she was 18. Mitchell owned a small combination butcher/ grocery store. They started a family right away with Verna, Dorothy, Donald and finally, Robert. Agnes was a short trim woman with lovely copper eyes and tiny features. She had her hands full with four children. Cooking and baking, tons of clothes to wash with a wringer washer and hanging on a clothesline. Plus she had to iron them all. Like most women, during that time, she also made clothes and kept a flower and vegetable garden. Mom always told me she made time for playing, disciplining, hugging and help with homework. Meals were freshly cooked, on time, with a neatly set table. Mom always spoke of her as an angel that gave constantly and didn't think of herself. My Grandpa worked all day then came home to be waited on. He worked outside in his rose garden and also painted and repaired around the house but there was a difference between "women's work" and what men did.
Grandma found a lump in her breast between her 3rd and 4th child. It was the 1930’s and she was pre-menopausal. I know that the now outdated Halsted procedure was used. At that time, surgical intervention meant removing the breast, the lump nodes in the axilla area and also the chest wall muscle. I am not sure about chemotherapy used back then. They might have used nitrogen mustard which was very harsh. I can't imagine how she handled it all. Her own mother helped, also two sisters. It must have been so difficult for her and resources for women with cancer were few.
She had my Uncle Bob, at age 39, after her surgery. A couple of years later she discovered another growth and had the other breast removed. She did recover although mom said she often tired easily and never looked very healthy. All the photos I have after that time, show dark circles under her eyes. She just kept going because she had a family to care for. I don't think complaining was ever an option. Her sister, Edna, also had bilateral mastectomies from breast cancer in the 1950’’s. She survived those to die of ovarian cancer in her 60's.
Grandma began to have abdominal swelling at age 64 and she passed blood. There was a colon resection done but she died less than a year after the surgery, apparently from metastatic colon cancer.
My own mom, Dorothy, found a lump in her breast in 1960, just one year after we had moved from Michigan to Georgia. She was only 40. I was seven but remember Dad’s Mom coming down to help care for my brother and I. With Grandma there, dad could work and mom could recover.
I remember acting up one time. My Grandma, who was a lovely large woman with pink cheeks who was sweet but stern, told me, "Kathie, you best be nice to your mom, she might not make it".
That made a real impression, I cried and couldn't sleep. I was afraid to ask, I didn't want to know. I prayed that God wouldn't take my mom away.
I remember my older brother and his wife sent mom a beautiful white silk and semi- transparent gown and robe set. Mom opened it as tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I can't wear that now!"
Grandma ran us out of the room and comforted Mom.
Mom told me later that the oncologist had gently encouraged her “to get her affairs in order”. The surgeon had performed a radical Halsted mastectomy and there was spread to a number of lump nodes. She remembers “breaking out into a cold sweat” after being given such a poor prognosis.
She told him, “I have two little children to take care of.” He held her hand and tried to comfort her. She always spoke fondly of him. I was impressed by his kind manner when I accompanied her later for a checkup.
They used Adriamycin, a strong chemotherapy agent, then known as “the red scare”. I remember mom wearing a wig and being very weak. The surgeon followed several weeks later by doing a total hysterectomy including removing the ovaries. At that time, medical science thought removing the uterus and ovaries might help stop any spread.
Mom was so strong and determined. I never saw her cry or. complain. Dad worked out of town so she had to care for us. It didn't seem very long before she was driving her stick shift again and cleaning our home. My mom was never one to sit still, always on the run with a list of things to do.
Two years later, she found a larger lump in the other breast. Now this was before the days of mammograms and breast biopsies. When the surgery was done the tumor was walled off by inflammation, it had not spread. Still, another radical Halsted procedure was done. She seemed to recover better this time.
Afterwards, she volunteered for "Reach to Recovery", visiting newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. They gave out kits. Each had a foam prosthesis, a soft ball to exercise with and recovery instructions. She made some wonderful friends and a support network. She also took a part time job at a department store. I am sure we needed the extra money for piano lessons, ballet, medical bills and vacations. I remember seeing her new replacement "breasts". She let me touch them and they felt very similar to the real thing. I know they were very expensive along with specially made bras. Mom never let me see her without her bra on.
Mom and Dad had a wonderful life together for almost fifty years. They traveled all over and really enjoyed each other's company. Dad was diagnosed in 1987 with cancer, Lymphoma. By the time the surgeon opened him, it had spread to liver, spleen and colon plus the lymph nodes. He underwent chemotherapy and died with in a year. He was only sixty-five. He did it his way by stopping the chemo and going with hospice. I was with him for the last two weeks and we all spent some quality time together.
My Mom died in 2003 peacefully at the age of 83. She had severe Alzheimer’s Disease plus multiple diagnoses that come with aging. In 2001, she had a colon resection including an ileostomy after a perforated colon.
The last 2 years of mom’s life were physically and emotionally challenging for her and us. Death came quietly, in the night, as a friend. She no longer knew me or anyone else. When she looked at us, it appeared as if she was frightened. It was a land of nightmares for her.
Her memory loss slowly came on, like a sunny sky with threatening clouds building, over time. One time, when she lived in an apartment in a retirement center, I was washing her back. Mom was always very modest and kept her chest covered. The towel dropped, she looked down and silent tears came.
“I'm an ugly old shell, looks like someone fought a war on my body. My poor Mom had the same thing." A hug was all I had to offer, I hope it helped.
I have been fortunate with only one scare and the biopsy came back negative. Working as an RN on a Woman's Unit for over twenty years, I became very familiar with breast cancer surgeries and reconstructions. It is not the same disease that my mom and grandma had to deal with. There have been so many advances but many women that have the genetic trait on DNA tests opt for mastectomies and reconstructions.
I am honored to be the daughter and grand daughter of women that fought so hard to get back to their lives post cancer. These days we tend to forget that cancer was once whispered about, like something of shame. Today, women and their physicians work together to find the best answer for their particular type of breast cancer. When you are given options and a voice in your treatment, that helps with optimism and healing.
Finding Inner Strength
Life's road, an obstacle course.
Thorny paths, high walls to scale,
puzzles where nothing fits.
I've no strength left to submit.
An angel wrapped golden wings about me.
I was already a lost ghost rattling chains.
No love, faith or devotion to defend.
Only a shadow of the woman I had been.
A breath of holy sweet air,
she blew in my frightened heart.
Stardust magic to empty parts,
lost to this monster of ugly art.
She took me for a ride
through star filled skies.
Iridescent globes burst,
shower healing upon the earth.
Life can be sad, sorrow can weigh heavy.
Science is constant and steady.
Even sitting alone in a cave of despair,
a cure is waiting, anxious somewhere.
By Kathie Stehr