This Mother's Day falls just before my two-year anniversary of being diagnosed with an aggressive form of early-stage, invasive breast cancer. Anniversaries can trigger traumatic memories, and as mine approaches I catch myself reliving pieces of the day I was diagnosed. Breast cancer would permeate every layer of my identity, shifting the way I felt as a wife, daughter, sister and friend, but that day it was my sense of motherhood that rocked me to my core.
Elizabeth Stone famously said: "Making the decision to have a child -- it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." I can't think of a better way to express how having children multiplies your sense of vulnerability. When I was diagnosed, my first thoughts were about my 1- and 2 year-old children: Will I be able to take care of them during treatment? Will I survive? Will they grow up without me?
That last question took my breath away and woke me up in the middle of the night with a racing heart. It sent me into my closet where I sat on the floor and cried, and into my kids' rooms while they slept, where I curled up beside them and fervently prayed.
It was fear with the power to paralyze me, yet my instinct to fight for my kids was stronger than that fear. For me, "fighting cancer" meant keeping my role in my kids' daily lives as steady as possible. It meant using my last reserves of energy to attend an event at my son's school or play with my daughter at the park.
When I was in treatment, our babysitter sent me a cartoon of a bald woman wearing a headscarf and walking with purpose while clutching the hand of a small child and carrying both a crying baby and a grocery bag. "This reminds me of you!" she said.
Of course, I wasn't that woman all the time. Anybody going through cancer treatment and surgeries feels defeated at times, and even those of us who have a relatively easy time with side effects succumb to sick days spent entirely in bed. But I could relate to the woman in that cartoon. She was busy with endless appointments, tired from chemo, and afraid of the future, but she shook off feeling sorry for herself, pulled herself up, and took care of her kids.
She was a woman who would forever be part of a sisterhood of women who live with a new sense of wonder for the small bodies housing pieces of their hearts -- women who watch their children grow with a new reverence for the passage of time.
As a member of this breast cancer mother sisterhood, I wish a Happy Mother's Day to the mother I met in a support group who is a nine-year survivor of stage-three breast cancer. I asked her once to tell me about her kids, who are teenagers now. She said, with intense pride, that they were great kids -- that they have a deep sense of what is important and what it means to be strong.
I wish a Happy Mother's Day to the mother I saw at Miami Cancer Institute, waiting for the elevator. Her bald head was uncovered and she wore big hoop earrings. She was holding the hand of a little girl, who I can only guess was her daughter. She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and when I looked at that little girl I thought, You have a brave, brave mama.
I wish a Happy Mother's Day to the single mother with few resources whom I met in the chemo suite, who moved heaven and earth to find childcare so she could make it to treatment appointments.
I wish a Happy Mother's Day to the mother I found online who has stage-four breast cancer. Resigned to death, she set the goal of seeing her son graduate from high school. She not only lived to see him graduate, but despite the odds is cancer-free today.
I wish a Happy Mother's Day to every mother who fights for her kids in the face of unimaginable challenges.
May our fight always be stronger than our fear.
This piece also appears on the Baptist Health Breast Center Blog.