Thursday, October 1, 2009

One Small Step for Mom, One Giant Leap for Daughter

For centuries man has tried to guess what the future will be like. Predictions of science, technology, fashion, food, or architecture are all fodder for literature and cinema.

But I recently had a more realistic glimpse of my future. I found myself looking face to face with my mom, who was bruised and stitched after a double mastectomy. While the face was my mother’s, the body was my own. We are the same height and weight, the same shape, with many of the same features. With only slight differences in age-related wear and tear, there’s no mistaking we’re related. But on this day when I was tending to her wounds and trying to ease her burden, I realized that I was quite possibly looking at myself in 30 years.

The disease is familial. Her mother had it, and now she has it. The odds are stacking against me. While I can claim to intellectually understand what my odds are, seeing the result of the diagnosis and treatment on so familiar a canvas was the most powerful bearer of reality.

It wasn’t scary, though. It was strangely calming. Having the opportunity to be the able-bodied one in the situation and to be able to help in the progression of healing not only made the situation less ominous, but it allowed me to see it for everything that it is.

I am not sick, not yet. My mom had only a short amount of time to prepare herself for this life-changing effort, a matter of weeks. Her treatment was quite different from my grandmother’s had been, so she did not have the opportunity to fully see what she was in for. Books and conversations and websites can only take you so far, and the ultimate plunge toward hopeful cure is a terribly solitary excursion.

I am reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 where the stranded astronauts circled the dark side of the moon in order to harness the moon’s gravity to propel their crippled space capsule back to Earth. They experienced a few minutes of complete lack of communication with the rest of world, nothing but darkness and silence. They were wholly alone and had only faith and a trust in science to bring them back to their former lives.

Surgery is the same combination of spiritual faith and intellectual trust in science, but it’s still scary as hell. When you don’t know if you’ll make it to the other side, 3 minutes in a lunar module or 5 hours on an operating table are about equal.

While I hope I somehow sidestep the odds and remain cancer-free in my lifetime, I feel more prepared for the opposite because I’ve glimpsed the future. I’m oddly comforted by having clearly observed and touched the body so similar to mine which has lived through it. I know what will likely happen to me. I’m better informed what can go wrong. It’s still an unwanted future, but now at least I’ve witnessed the path around the moon for myself.

Never bypass the opportunity to help someone else in their time of need. Little epiphanies appear in unlikely places.


  1. You're a talented writer - I really like that phrase about the familiar canvass. Cancer sucks. In 30 years, let's hope theirs a cure! I hope my daughters will be there for me one day if I need them like you are there for your ma! Blessings on her and prayers for a speedy recovery.

  2. Thank you for sharing this with us, Rachel. Very moving.