Twelve years ago, I was a carefree nine-year-old who had just moved from Boston to San Francisco. School was going well, my parents promised to buy me a dog for Christmas, and I’d joined a soccer team.
My head was in the clouds. I don’t remember much about my mom having cancer; I just knew she was sick. It didn’t mean very much to me.
In October of 1999, while getting dressed for work in the morning, my mom found a lump in her left breast. An October 14th mammogram and ultrasound revealed a “9 x 11 mm mass with ill-defined, indistinct margins.” An October 22nd biopsy confirmed it as a “grade 2 infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”
My mom was given two options: a mastectomy or a lumpectomy (at the time, doctors didn’t know she had a BRCA mutation.) Either option would require chemotherapy and radiation.
She opted for the lumpectomy. Her first round of chemotherapy was on January 17th, 2000. By December of 2000, her mammograms were clear.
Where was I in all of this? I’m not really sure. I have no recollection of the moment she told me she was sick. Apparently she sat me down and explained, as best she could to someone who would prefer to ride a bike than to talk about medical problems, that she was ill but she was getting treatment and would be okay in the end. After she was done talking, I asked for a cup of tea.
Either I absorbed the news so well that I was going to reflect on it with a nice cup of Earl Grey, or I had no idea what to do with the information and was looking to change the subject.
One day we went shopping for wigs. It was a lot of fun, but boy, was it overwhelming. There was so many styles. At the time, my mom’s hair was a curly ash brown, styled in a short, almost cropped cut. But the wig she picked wasn’t like her hair at all: it was auburn, a shoulder-length bob. And she never actually wore it–why did we pick it?
“Why?” Those were the type of questions I remember.
“Why is your mom bald?” That was the worst one, my most vivid memory of my mom’s breast cancer. I was in my fourth grade class giving a presentation about animal abuse. I’d invited a local newspaper columnist who wrote about animals to speak to the class. My parents were so proud of me; they came to watch my presentation and to meet the columnist.
Mom wore a green, flowery dress that touched the floor and a purple knit hat. It was obvious that she had no hair: even the shortest of cuts would have had at least some strands poking out the back. The hat was a way of protecting the rest of the world from cancer, of shielding the problem and letting everyone ignore it.
So when a boy named Michael asked why my mom was bald, I was taken aback. Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to ask that kind of question? Had his parents not taught him any manners? What was his deal?!
I don’t remember how I answered him. I’m sure I said something snarky.
That incident was honestly the most traumatic breast cancer-related moment of my childhood. By the time fifth grade started, breast cancer seemed like a thing of the past. Mom was done with chemo and radiation, her hair was growing back, life had resumed as normal. Breast cancer, it seemed, had only been a minor hiccup.