I grew up knowing that my Grandma Caroline passed away from breast cancer at the age of 46. She died six months after the death of my grandfather from esophageal cancer in 1955, orphaning my dad at the age of eight. However, it wasn’t until my own diagnosis of breast cancer in 2011, at the age of 32, that I started to ask more questions about the experience my grandmother likely had as a patient 56 years before me. Given that my dad was so young at the time of her diagnosis and death, I realized that much of her story would have to be pieced together by talking to various family members. Trying to learn specific details about her diagnosis, treatment and subsequent death was difficult so far after the fact. The one constant response I received from the family members with whom I spoke: at that time, cancer was a death sentence.
My grandma knew about the lump in her breast for some time before she actually went to the doctor. Whether it was fear or finances that kept her from going in sooner is unclear – probably a combination of the two. When her breast started weeping fluid, she finally went in to see a doctor where she received her diagnosis of breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy, but by that time, the cancer had already metastasized to her bones. One of my dad’s few memories of this time was helping his mother into the back brace that supported her weakening spine. He was seven.
Family members recounted to me visits they had with my grandmother at the nursing home where she lived out the end of her life. Testosterone treatments distorted her face. She had large amounts of facial hair. One eye remained permanently closed while the other remained wide open. At one point, every one of her ribs was broken, leaving her unable to sit up in bed. When the end of her suffering finally came, she was devastated to leave her three sons, two of whom were still so young. My dad was not allowed to visit the nursing home or attend her funeral. The family was trying to shelter him from this cruelty of life. When I look at my own six year old, it breaks my heart to think about the suffering this disease caused my dad as such a young child – the suffering it caused the entire family.
While there is still too much pain and loss as a result of cancer, I am thankful for the advances that have been made in the time since my grandmother lost her life. But there is still a long way to go. My hope is that my daughters, now four and six years old, will not have to worry about breast cancer. I hope that medical advances will be made that render cancer extinct. And I hope that my grandma is smiling down, knowing that her story pushed me into action when I first felt my own lump, likely saving my life. I never had the chance to meet her, to give her a hug, to hear her voice, but I feel such a strong connection to this woman who was taken far too soon.