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Breast Cancer Awareness: Will I Have the Disease My Mother Did?

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JESSICA PEARCE ROTONDI
Courtesy of Jessica Rotondi

My hips are spreading, pressing up against the waistband of a pair of 90s pleated pants that she wore so much, the lining is beginning to fray. I've begun to fill out her cocktail dresses, last dry cleaned in 1997. The leather of my watchband is threatening to crumble at the ridge where it's been clasped to fit the exact circumference of a wrist, though it's hard to say where the wear from my mother's wrist ends and the wear from my own begins.

My body is becoming my mother's.

I can look in the mirror and point out her eyes, her jaw; I can itemize the objects I have of hers and touch them until they disintegrate, but there is one part of her legacy that I can't touch or inventory: her cancer.

In July of 2006, my mother sobbed through her annual breast exam because a close friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Mom's test was clear that day, but three months later, she stepped out of the shower and saw a 4 centimeter lump rising out of her own breast in the mirror. Tests revealed that she had Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer -- a rare disease with a five-year survival rate of 11 percent.

Inflammatory breast cancer isn't hereditary. There is no gene they've identified that mothers pass on to daughters; no patterns that pick out certain women as targets. There is no known cause, and IBC often goes undetected in physical exams, preferring a dramatic entrance and quick bloom throughout the body.

An 11 percent survival rate. We cried. Mom began to keep an online journal about her treatments, sharing jokes and stories with the friends and family members who drove her to and from chemo, dropped off dinners on our doorstep and called to check in. She wrote thank-you notes for every single act of kindness.

When cancer spread to my mother's lymph nodes, the doctors removed them and I watched her sleep while hooked up to tubes. When it spread to her bones, the doctors inserted titanium rods in her hips and femur and I watched my mother learn to walk again. When it spread to her lungs, brain and liver, there was nothing else we could do. She died on Oct. 29, 2009, at the age of 56.

jessica pearce rotondi

Three years after her death, I'm in what Susan Sontag called "the kingdom of the well," but I see entrances to the kingdom of the sick everywhere.

The all-too-familiar lighting in hospitals makes my heart race. I have panic attacks when I get my blood drawn and hold the hands of nurses kind enough to oblige the 26-year-old giving a routine sample with a squeeze. I recall my mother's bruised hands stuck with chemotherapy needles and am ashamed.

I flinch when a partner touches my breasts. I tell myself calm down, you're safe. I wonder if the chill will ever leave me.

I go to the weddings of friends and see in my mind's eye the last one we attended as a family: My father standing behind my mother in her wheelchair a month before she died, both of them watching the couple's first dance. I remember thinking how frail Mom looked, how young and sad and aged my father appeared behind her.

Breast cancer enters our bedrooms. It comes with us to fitting rooms. It's with us at weddings when our mothers or sisters are not.

The inheritance of cancer, whether it's in our genes or in our memories, is everywhere. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. This October, when the world takes a month and dedicates it to a disease that is set to take away 39,510 people this year, HuffPost Women and HuffPost Healthy Living will be showcasing the stories of survivors, their loved ones and those currently battling the disease. If you'd like to share how breast cancer has impacted your life or the life of someone you love, please send your story, a photo you would like us to feature with it, and a headshot and bio of yourself to MyStory@huffingtonpost.com. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at that address.

This month, let's share our stories and support research that can give us all answers.

PHOTOS: 'My Breast Cancer Story'

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