Me and My Mother In Sickness and Health

Refuse the fiber pills. Demand a CAT scan. Discover that ovarian tumor. Get it the hell out of you.

I took the Spring semester of my fourth year of college off to move home to Philadelphia to care for my mom while she underwent chemotherapy for an ovarian tumor. A slightly odd turn of events led to this scenario a few months later: my frail, bald mother squeezing my hand before I was wheeled away to have breast lump removal surgery. On that same breezy morning in late May, my classmates of four years were 100 miles away in New York City, graduating from college without me.

My mother is a character everyone should know about. She’s the eleventh of twelve children, ageless and optimistic, and utterly obsessed with Christmas.

She’s also a single mother of two and a three-­time cancer survivor (breast once, ovarian twice). She wouldn’t consider the removal of her breasts, ovaries, and uterus a loss. How could she, when it was another chance at life and health she had gained? It was more time to spend with her 2 kids, who she loves more than anything.

I’d decided to go on birth control that Spring partly because I began dating someone, and partly because of the reported benefits of the pill to lessen the risk of ovarian cancer. That required a gynecological exam — my very first one. With my legs spread wide in a small, cramped room, a kind but blunt elderly Caribbean doctor (along with a nurse AND an intern) gave me a supremely awkward vaginal exam while talking to each other in a language I definitely didn’t know. Uncomfortable is a laughable understatement. I didn’t walk out of there with a prescription for birth control, however, because the Caribbean doctor found a lump in my breast during the visit. I was 22.

Surgery to remove the lump found that it was non­cancerous, but nowadays I do tend to slightly overreact (ahem…freak out) over every mole or new freckle. Every stomach pain or blinding headache is surely cancer. But that May morning, as every doctor in the room introduced themselves to me so I wouldn’t feel awkward about these strangers cutting open my breast in the next few minutes, I had no fear. If the lump was anything, they were getting it out early. If it was really serious, so what? My mom had beat cancer almost twice at that point. I felt I had nothing to fear because any outcome or battle was something my petite adorable mother had already overcome. I’m twice her size and half her age…surely I could do it, too, if I had to.

That’s why this past weekend was really special to me. I got to watch my mom walk proudly across the bandshell stage in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, to the cheers of hundreds of other fighters, supporters, and survivors, celebrating 1 year of her being free of Ovarian cancer. Some women were 5 years free, some 20 years, some just a month, some still fighting the battle. It was an empowering scene to see so many of them together and surrounded by family and friends who love them so much, and appreciate their courage, bravery, and strength.

At one point, I yelled “mom!” to get her attention so I could snap a photo of my mother on stage — and every woman nearby immediately turned my way. It was funny at the time, but looking back, it’s a loud message. Every woman is somebody to someone. So many women — mothers, sisters, wives, daughters — are affected by this thing that is still such a mystery. There is no way to screen for ovarian cancer. Genetic counseling and heeding the symptoms are your best chance, and that is a big part of why the TEAL Walk exists.

TEAL is not only the color that represents ovarian cancer, but it stands for “Tell Every Amazing Lady” …About Ovarian Cancer. All that can really be done right now is to spread awareness of the symptoms, raise money to fund research of screening methods, and spread knowledge about genetic counseling.

I received genetic counseling this year, and was honestly floored when the doctor told me that I had no mutated genes. For some reason, after personally seeing so much cancer in my family, I was positive it was a battle I was going to have to one day fight. As much as I steeled myself against that possible future, I can’t begin to explain the relief I felt when I heard otherwise. Sure, maybe I will still develop cancer one day, but I don’t have that higher risk of definitely getting it. I don’t have to decide now if I should preemptively have my ovaries and breasts removed.

If it had turned out that I did have the mutation, I would have been all the more prepared for my future. There is no downside to genetic counseling. I encourage everyone to look into it.

Let’s do our part to make sure our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, wives (and especially ourselves) are around to witness a celebration of their lives instead of the mourning of their death.

That said, whatever your battle(s) may be, know that you are not alone in fighting it, even if it really seems like you might be. Find the inner courage to do as my mom did: refuse the handful of fiber pills given to her by the medical staff who was certain those would fix her swollen belly. Demand a CAT scan, like she did. Knowing the symptoms of Ovarian cancer, and also listening to her own body and trusting in herself, is what saved my mother’s life so far.

So now I’m here, graduated and gainfully employed doing exactly what I love and went to school for, despite graduating later. I’m healthy and happy with the greatest love by my side, someone who wiped my tears when I briefly wondered if I would see the same health obstacles as my mom one day. Someone who assures me that any battle is not only fight-able, but conquerable, because I’m “Terri’s daughter.”