The Diagnosis: Catalyst for Empathy

From Life is a Classroom, A teacher’s journey

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in third grade. She was thirty- two years old at the time, and in those days they gave out mastectomies left and right. My parents didn’t really communicate what was going on to my siblings and me. In my memory, it seemed like such a non-event. I don’t recall any explanation, just that mom was going into the hospital. Other than that, we didn’t really talk about it. I do know that I was rattled, for sure, but I never communicated my fears or concerns with my parents. It’s curious to me now that even though my family was the “good-normal,” I still didn’t want to be vulnerable with them.

One day while I was in elementary school, in Mrs. Frank’s class, I wanted to tell her what was happening with my mom, and how I felt about it. I wanted to share how scared I was, and how I just wanted someone to hold me, to talk to me about it all until I felt safe again, and to tell me everything was going to be okay. I was so compelled to walk up to her desk during a silent reading assignment and to pour out. Eventually, I got up from my seat, walked up to her desk, and then painfully blurted out, “Mrs. Frank, my mom has cancer.” I’ll never forget how she answered me.

She said, “Okay, go sit down now.”

I think back to those five words. I can’t comprehend how in the world — as an adult, as a mother, as a teacher — those insensitive words could have come out of her mouth. She was always nice enough as a teacher. But really — how do you not grab that child, hug her, and comfort her? I was only eight years old at that time, but the words “Okay, go sit down now,” were the extent of the counseling that I received concerning my mother’s first battle with cancer. Other struggles with this disease and its reoccurrence would follow years later. The empathy that I craved from this teacher fueled the empathy that I offer as a teacher to my students now.

My mother returned home from the hospital after the tumors were removed from her breast. She was cancer free — for now. During those first few days, I didn’t really understand what a mastectomy was until I accidentally caught a glimpse of her chest where her breast once was. She had her nightgown on and we were looking for my little brother’s toy under the bed, so she leaned down in front of me and I caught a very clear view of what they did to her at the hospital, and the ugliness her disease had left her with.

I was scared.

My own chest burned with the picture of hers in my head. And of course, she never knew that I saw it. My mother never had reconstructive surgery on her breast. It just wasn’t in her personality to do that, and my father accepted her body wholeheartedly with having only one. All throughout the years, her torso remained lopsided and scarred, bearing the severe marks of a woman’s most profound battle.

Now, as an adult when I find myself reflecting on the fragile, emotional state of that little, eight-year-old girl, I realize no one was there to advocate for her, speak up for her, or to comfort her throughout this entire frightening ordeal. Yes, my parents were physically there, doing the best that they knew how to do, but I guess I needed more.

My son is now eight years old and I find myself examining his life and his challenges through the lens of that little girl. When I look at him, I also see my students, and I feel such an urgent need to advocate on their behalf as well because I want to be there for them — to let them know that they’re not alone. I want to ease their pain when they’re sad, and to help them navigate through their challenges, because I can’t honestly promise them that their daily struggles will somehow disappear. I just want them to know I’m in their corner. I’m there for them, to fight for and alongside them, every step of the way, especially when they are frail, abused, neglected, or silenced.

Ten years after my mother’s first diagnosis of breast cancer, we learned that it had returned and had metastasized in her lungs. I was eighteen at that time, so I could better understand what was going on. But still, even then we didn’t communicate our fear or anger or sadness about what the return of her cancer could mean for her and our family. We just waited it out for a few weeks until we knew the extent of it. We prayed. We trusted God. We expected she’d be fine. And thank God for miracles! There were only a few cancer cells that were present after all. She was able to manage it, and once again, both times avoiding radiation and chemotherapy.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Two years ago she found a lump in her neck. Once again it had come back, and once again she fought it but also was fighting the battle with health issues related to her cancer history, and suffering because of it. The chemotherapy medications she’d taken for more than half of her life to control the cancer still lingered in her body and had taken their toll on her body’s organs. It was becoming more difficult for her body to fight back and recover. She was in a lot of pain most of the time, and suffered greatly because of it.

Cancer had been with her for two-thirds of her life, yet she managed to rise above the disease every day. She still smiled and was able to laugh through all of the challenges, without allowing them to consume or imprison her.

My mother’s cancer has also been my teacher. I’ve been able to watch how it affects not only the person who has it, but also everyone who comes into contact with the cancer patient, and I’ve learned from each of them too. I watched and admired how my mother had dealt gracefully with her disease over the years, never considering herself a victim, never becoming visibly angry or losing her cool. I never heard her cry, “Why me, God?”. She was always able to saturate her wounds with genuine, heartfelt humor.

My mother has passed. She asked us if she could stop fighting. She was done.

I’ve been able to watch how cancer affects not only the person who has it, but also everyone who comes into contact with the cancer patient, and I’ve learned from each of them too.

I see a lot of very derogatory remarks about cancer and its injustice all around me everyday in our society. On social media I see it. On bumper stickers. At cancer awareness rallies, walks, talks, etc. Even through all the chaos my family and I have been through, have gone through for so many years, I don’t agree. There’s another side to cancer that I think we should reflect on. We were able to find strength and love in the face of this adversity.

My family became closer because of cancer. My brother, sister and I began to connect on a deeper level than we ever have before. My dad opened up to us a side he’s never let us see.

People came from our past and our present lives to shower their love on us and my mother. Prayer chains were going on via social media, emails and texts, all for my mother and my family. It was an outpouring of love that my mother’s adversity caused.

My mother’s beautiful friends, dozens, flooded us with love. They brought us meals made from their loving, nurturing hearts. They all visited her, sang to her, prayed over her, talked about what a wonderful woman she had always been to them. Tons and tons of sympathy cards with beautifully handwritten, heartfelt messages arrived every day. My heart swelled.

My own friends and colleagues who knew my mother well or not, were right there beside me, showing their love and support for me and my family, arms wide open, embracing us. Friends from my past who I hadn’t talked to in years showed up, right there, ready to give to me anything I needed. Her disease did that.

My mother’s cancer brought us all together. It showed us the connection we all have with each other. All our relationships — inside and outside of our family — came full circle. We were all present, physically and/or emotionally to help each other, to show our love for each other and the connectedness we all share.

I spent the majority of my youth worrying about my mom, afraid that cancer would take her away from me. I never knew how to help her, how to make it go away, how to deal with the constant fear that it brought. It wasn’t until recently that I had let go of my fear for her and understood that it was not my job to worry for her. This had been her journey, her cross to bear. And it also wasn’t my job to get her through all this; it was, however, my job to love her and encourage her. And it’s the same for my students too, to love and encourage them. Whatever happens, I know we’ll all be alright, no matter what greets us on our life’s journey. The spiritual teacher and author Adyashanti said it best: “All is always well, even when it seems unbelievably unwell.”

So yes, my sensitivity allows me to connect with my students and understand the dysfunctions that accompany many of them when they come to school. There’s a part of me that wants to take away their pain, and hug them when political correctness dictates that I shouldn’t, even though I know they’re on their own journey, and it’s my job to partner with them for as long as they’re in my life. I therefore ask them questions to discover the hidden details of their lives so that I can be a stand for them.