Am I a Survivor, Too?

10/12/2011 07:44 am ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

I often ask myself, "Am I a survivor, too?" when I think about my mother's plight with breast cancer. Even though I was not the one to go through the lumpectomy, the chemo, the radiation first hand, could I still be considered a survivor?


I'm sure some of you just went, "WTF?" Let me explain.

In 1999 my mother went for her routine mammogram. She was 39 and had been doing them regularly, as we all should. The doctor got her X-rays, reviewed them and gave her the regular all-clear call.

However, this is where things quickly changed. We're not entirely sure what happened, but a few days later either her regular doctor or another re-reviewed her X-rays -- perhaps the more in-depth review at a later date that seems to occur frequently as we're such an instant-gratification society we must have everything now -- and found something suspicious. She received a phone call to come back in for another test, and she gladly obliged.

The doctor called back the next day. They were concerned with a mass they found and would like to perform some tests.

I was in my first year of college and traveling between home and campus, as well as participating on the track and field team. I was home perhaps 10 hours out of the day, and during six to eight of those I was sleeping, so I didn't see my family much. In October, my mother and father sat me down one evening and said, "We're going to need you home Friday right after your classes to watch your brother."

I nodded my okay and asked what was up. I think I even joked that they had a date. But then my parents became somber. "Your mother has cancer," my dad said. "She's having surgery to remove the lumps."

I remember feeling my stomach hollow out and an ice-cold chill running through me. "What?" I asked. They told me the story of what happened. The questionable masses, the tests, the doctors. "Why didn't you tell me before now?"

"We didn't want you to worry," my sweet mother told me.

I was hurt and confused. Why didn't they tell me sooner that something was wrong? What was going to happen to my mother? Why did this happen to my mother?

They didn't want me to worry. They didn't know what was going to happen. They didn't know why this happened.

Now, something to note here -- my mother doesn't smoke, drink or generally do anything unhealthy or bad, which was all the more shocking that she got breast cancer. There was no reason for it.

Friday came. I told my coach I couldn't make practice, stayed with my brother and generally fretted over what would happen. My mother recovered over the weekend, and my parents gave me more bad news. She was going to need chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I could tell my mom was scared, my dad too. My big, scary, ex-military dad was scared. Man, I hated God, fate, whomever, right then.

Months passed and we came up on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother had her chemo, lost her hair, wouldn't leave her room for days because she was so ill from the treatments and was embarrassed because she thought she looked horrible. Not a great way to start the holiday season. My father was commuting an hour and a half each way to a new job, house hunting on hold until my mother was better. He made sure he was home to help me with my brother, who was 9 years old at the time. I red-shirted the track season so I could be home with my family and help.

In late November I got a call from a high school friend of mine. We hadn't seen each other for a while, and she thought it would be nice to catch up. She was going to drive up for a visit and bring some other buddies from school. I warned her about my mom's condition. "She's going through chemo and is pretty ill after her sessions. You'll be coming at the end of the week, so she should be up and about by then."

My friends came and we reconnected, enjoyed watching a movie and had some light-hearted fun. About an hour or two into their visit I realized my mom still hadn't come downstairs. She had known these people from when I was in school, and I thought she would want to see them. I went upstairs to see what was going on. Perhaps she was napping.

Nope. She was sitting in bed, reading a book. "Mom, aren't you going to come down and say hi?"

She heaved her "mom" sigh. "I don't want to embarrass you."


"All my hair is gone and the wig looks horrible. I thought I'd stay up here so you wouldn't be embarrassed."

I don't think I've ever been so furious and heartbroken for my mom. I checked the tears so she wouldn't see them and then sat on the bed. "Mom, if anyone down there has a problem with how you look then they can leave, 'cause they're no friend of mine."

Later, I found out that my friend's mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She had wanted to speak to me about what to expect, how we were holding up and generally what life was like going through this ordeal.

Fast forward five years. No signs of cancer cells in my mother's body. The doctors said she was "cured." I scoffed at that label when she told me. Apparently, after five years of no relapse, you're considered cured. However, we all know it can strike at any time, anywhere.

It's now 11 years later. My mother hasn't had another incident, she takes regular medication and all seems well with the world -- other than her gentle nagging for me to quit smoking, get a regular mammogram and to check myself every day in the shower. I do so love you, mom.

This brings me back to my question: Am I a survivor? Again, I say yes. Those families that have to stand by and watch a loved one be consumed by this horrible disease, or the side-effects of the treatments, are survivors. It's not just the person who gets cancer that's affected. Those who stand by them, hold them up, love them and care for them -- they're survivors, too.

I'm a survivor. And if one of your loved ones have been afflicted by cancer -- brain, lung, liver, breast, pancreatic, colon and oh so many others -- you're a survivor, too.

Jennifer Wenner is a web developer for The Huffington Post. She is a wife and mother of one. She reads and writes her in spare time and is also an avid supporter of Breast Cancer Awareness. Please visit Susan G. Koman For The Cure and American Cancer Society to support the cause and raise awareness.