Every Spirited Woman has had a brush with breast cancer. Maybe it's a friend, maybe it's a sister, maybe it's your mother, or maybe breast cancer has visited you. To honor the many stories of survivors and those who have not survived, we take this month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to explore some of these stories. In this series, Kathy Bolte introduces us to three women who have faced this disease head on. In Kathy's final post we meet Kathy.
I have fond memories of gathering at my grandparent’s home as a child. A couple of times a month my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and I would gather for a big family dinner. It was always a full day’s affair, and sometimes a full weekend.
My grandmother’s sister lived in the house right next to my grandparent’s home. Aunt Mildred was a special kind of woman. She always offered a big smile, a hearty laugh and a giant, welcoming spirit.
One weekend as my cousin, Karen and I were hanging out with Aunt Mildred, we noticed a giant shiny steel machine in her pantry. “What’s that, Aunt Mildred?”we asked. “It’s a juicer,” she told us. “You can take fresh vegetables and fruits and make them into juices.” And then, of course, she proceeded to demonstrate. The juices she made from putting carrots, celery and beets into this funny, loud machine came out surprisingly pleasing to a nine-year-old’s palate.
It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why my Aunt Mildred was suddenly so committed to drinking fresh vegetable juice. She had breast cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. She was trying to save her own life.
This was my first experience with my family’s dance with breast cancer. In the ensuing years I would lose two aunts to breast cancer, my own mother would be diagnosed and later die of breast cancer, and my middle sister would have a mastectomy not once, but twice, because of breast cancer. Cancer, it seems, was rampant in the women of my family.
In 1983, when I was just 33 years old, I had my own brush with cancer, but it was in my uterus, not in my breast. I had a hysterectomy and post-surgical treatment, and recovered fully. My own experience with cancer was especially poignant, however, because my mother and I were diagnosed and treated in the same year – she with breast cancer and me with uterine cancer.
At the end of our respective treatments we were both given the traditional five-year window. If you make it through five years with no recurring cancer, your odds are greatly improved that the cancer will not come back. My five-year markers were clean – I was home free. My mother’s were not. Her cancer metastasized to her liver and kidneys, and four years later she was gone.
I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 42 and she was 74. That is far too young an age for either of us to have experienced this loss, not that there is any age that is a right age for a girl to lose her mother. My mom and I had always been close and it was difficult to learn to live my life without her physical presence.