There’s a novel called The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh that came out in 1971. It was the first cop novel to portray cops as more than guys in trenchcoats who walked around saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” These cops were humans. They had lives. They drank, swore, fornicated, cried. In one scene, a young cop is nearly blown in half by a point-blank shotgun blast to the stomach. Somehow, he survives. After months and months of surgeries and painful rehabilitation, he is able to rejoin the LAPD. Thinner, weaker, but still headstrong. He is barely back on the job when, after interrupting a break-in, he takes another bullet to the stomach. As lays there, slipping away, the cop knows that his body was strong enough to survive one near-death experience, but not two.
It was this scene that played through my mind yesterday when I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Again.
My grandmother died of breast cancer before I ever met her, when my mother was just 13 years old. With a family history of breast cancer, my mother has been undergoing mammograms for years. Four years ago, a routine mammogram revealed cancer. My mother underwent surgery, reconstruction, then chemotherapy and radiation. She lost every strand of hair, but never an ounce of strength. Making things harder on her were father’s medical issues. My father has never taken care of himself physically, and has been more than 100 pounds overweight for the last 20 years. Finally his strained joints gave out, necessitating a double hip replacement around the same time my mother was starting chemo. Ironically, though my mother’s ailment was the only one that was life-threatening, she was the one administering care when my father couldn’t walk.
At first my mother wore a kerchief around her head. Then a wig. She lost weight. I accompanied her to numerous chemo sessions, sitting there talking or reading magazines while poison was pumped through her body. Eventually the chemo and radiation ended. Her follow-up tests showed she was cancer free. Her hair grew back. She got in the best shape of her life, changing her diet and walking several hours a day with her new puppy, a decision inspired by her love for my dog (her “granddog”). She took the trip to China that had to be put on hold due to her treatment. My mother had her life back and was determined to live it to the fullest. Three years later, she wore a pink ‘Survivor’ shirt during the Komen Walk for breast cancer research, a walk I’ve participated in with my family and friends for years. She’d beaten it. Or so we thought.
Two nights ago I was on a date. It went well. I got home with a smile on my face. When I checked my phone I had a voicemail from my mother, asking me to call her. It did not sound urgent. It was late, I assumed she was just saying hello and would call her back the next day. When I woke up the next morning, I had an email waiting from my mother. During her bi-annual MRI checkup, the doctors found suspicious tissue. They immediately took a biopsy. They would know more later that day.
I left work early to meet my mother and sister for lunch. We wanted to keep her company while she waited for news we prayed would turn out to be a big nothing. MRIs are generally not as reliable in detecting breast cancer as a mammogram, routinely turning out false positives. There was hope. Yet when I got to the restaurant, my mother and sister were not seated at a table, but walking around outside. My sister was crying. My mother’s eyes were red. The doctor had called. The biopsied tissue tested positive. Her breast cancer was back.
Her follow up is on Monday. She will likely face a double mastectomy, reconstruction, then radiation and chemotherapy for the second time in five years. My mother is the strongest person I have ever known. She never complained during her first treatment, instead always asking how ‘we’ were handling it, as though the emotional toll the disease was taking on her family was more destructive than the cells ravaging her body. I know my mother’s head is strong enough to face down this disease a second time. But like that unfortunate cop in Wambaugh’s novel, I cannot help but wonder if my mother, this Iron Lady, exhausted her defenses on the first attack, leaving her too weak to fend off a second.
I pray there’s enough strength left for her to pull through. I pray in a few years she’ll be wearing that pink shirt again, maybe two of them, one on top of another, to rub it in the face of this awful disease. I know my mother has the inner strength to beat this. All I can hope her body is as strong as her resolve.