My name is Elise Thomm and my mother’s name was Amy Thomm, in a couple of months I will be turning 29 which is the age my mother was when first diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first battle with breast cancer came with a vengeance for her life, she fought it with all she could, and won- but only for a time. My mother wrote this short nonfictional story “When You’re a Young Mother… With Breast Cancer” after she recovered from her first round of breast cancer in 1992. She wrote this story to share with other women and mothers how she navigated body image post mastectomy, the emotional turbulence of cancer, and explaining to her young daughters that she was fighting for her life. Unfortunately after she wrote this short story she endured a second battle with cancer of which she did not survive- but her story did. I don’t have memories of my mother- but thankfully I have been able to read her story. Her writing has provided me with a new perspective on what it means to persevere and be courageous in ways that I could not even imagine.
In her honor, it is my privilege to share with you in celebration of her life, her legacy, and her brave motherhood which she used all of her strength to hold onto…
When You’re a Young Mother… With Breast Cancer
By Amy Elizabeth Thomm
Breast cancer was the last thing on my mind in April of 1992. My husband Steve and I, along with our two daughters, were moving from our small home into a big old Victorian house which needed total renovation. We were so excited with the whole prospect of what we were undertaking.
One evening Steve and I sat on the couch watching television, surrounded by a clutter of boxes. I was very tired from all of the packing I had done that day. I stretched wearily and immediately felt a tight pulling sensation in the upper outer quadrant of my right breast. My hand was drawn to the spot and I felt a painful lump about the size of a quarter. Steve could feel it too, so I knew it wasn’t my imagination. I had just done a breast self-examination one month before and that lump was not there. We were both frightened at the thought of a breast lump. My aunt and cousin on my mother’s side both had breast cancer and mastectomies as a result. Later, after a recurrence, they both had a second mastectomy. I told myself it had to be nothing because my own mother and sister never had breast cancer.
I saw my doctor as soon as possible and he told me not to worry. After all, as he put it, I was young (I had just turned 29) and I had both of my children before age 30. Also, because my immediate family members had not had breast cancer the odds were in my favor. I felt reassured for a moment. When he tried to aspirate fluid from the lump he was not successful though. If he had been able to it would have meant that it was only a cyst. Next, he ordered mammograms and after viewing them he decided I should have a biopsy done.
The next morning I sat in fear behind a curtain in the same day surgery room of the hospital after the biopsy had been performed. My doctor appeared, knelt beside me, put his hand on my knee and said, “The pathologist looked at it and he’s sure it is cancerous, Amy. The final test results will be in tomorrow. I don’t know how you feel about it, but if you were my wife or my daughter I would suggest removing the whole breast. It’s your best chance for a cure.” I agreed. I just wanted it out of my body. I wasn’t thinking about ‘losing a breast’ at that point.
With my family history I shouldn’t have been so shocked, but I was. I always knew it was a possibility, but somehow I thought I would be older when and if it did happen. I felt numb inside, as if watching this happen to someone else.
Steve took me home and we cried. He held me tight and sobbed, “I just don’t want anything to happen to you.” He meant he didn’t want me to die of course. Die! How absurd that sounded. Why, I was 29 with a nine-month-old baby and a five-year-old, with prospects of a bright future in our new home! Only, the future wasn’t bright now and I was scared.
The following day my husband and I sat in my surgeon’s office. We listened in a daze as he told us that the final test results confirmed what the pathologist had suspected. I had breast cancer.
Then came the agony of telling our families. It seemed I was surrounded by tears everywhere I went. Our baby, Elise, was too young to know what was happening of course, but even babies can sense when something is wrong. Her eyes searched mine for an answer, but there was nothing I could say to make her understand. Amanda, being older, needed an explanation of what cancer was. I had done some reading on how to explain cancer to a young child to help me out in this situation. I told her, “Our bodies are made up of something called cells. Sometimes, instead of growing normally, there are cells that grow too fast and they spread. That is what has happened in mama’s breast. The doctor thinks it would be best to take my breast off to make sure he gets all of those bad cells, the cancer.” She asked questions about my surgery and what it would be like. I answered her as best I could and I was honest with her, being careful not to frighten her too much. I owed her the truth, but only as much as her age could handle.
We moved on a Saturday and my surgery was on the following Tuesday. My surgeon removed all of the lymph nodes under my right armpit (which is customary) along with my right breast. The cancer had spread to two lymph nodes. I had hoped that there wouldn’t be any lymph node involvement, but I realized I was lucky it hadn’t affected more.
I was told in my particular case that it would be best if I didn’t have any more children. So at the time of my mastectomy I also had a sterilization procedure done. No more children was a difficult thing to accept for my husband and I since we had just bought our big home with hopes of a third child somewhere down the road. But we were happy in the knowledge that we had the chance to have our two beautiful children before my cancer occurred.
My lopsided appearance was hard for me to get used to at first. It wasn’t the scar that bothered me as much as what it represented: the cancer. I also felt very empty with only one breast and shed many tears over this. To my husband there wasn’t anything unnatural or hideous about it. He told me he loved me and just wanted me healthy again.
After the incision was healed I bought a breast prosthesis. It felt better to have some weight in my bra rather than just cotton fiberfill. At least it felt like “something” was there.
Then I started chemotherapy. I was to have a rather aggressive course of treatment because my tumor had been very fast growing, I was young and hereditary factors had played a key role in my cancer. I went to my oncologist’s office and received my chemo drugs through intravenous feeding and took pills every night. Many people don’t get sick with chemotherapy or have any problems at all, except for fatigue. I was one of the unfortunate ones who encountered some obstacles. I was nauseated and had a difficult time trying to keep food down in the beginning. In spite of the nausea I still had cravings (a by-product of chemotherapy) for seafood submarine sandwiches and Chinese food! We joked about it and said that it was almost like being pregnant. I ate several small meals to try and avoid the nausea and gained a considerable amount of weight. My family was glad I wasn’t wasting away to nothing, but I was less than thrilled with the weight gain. The nausea medications used didn’t work and gave me a severe freeze reaction. My neck and jaw locked up and I couldn’t move them. It was painful and uncomfortable. We finally hit on the one that worked and I was only mildly nauseated then. It meant wearing a motion sickness patch behind my ear and going to my oncologist’s office or the hospital daily for intravenous feeding of the nausea medication, for it was new and hadn’t come out in pill form yet.
On one particularly bad morning I was trying to get my shoes on as I struggled against the nausea. Amanda, sitting at my side, looked at me with those big blue innocent eyes and asked in a worried tone, “Are you going to die mama?” That moment was very heart wrenching. If ever there was a question that can leave a parent feeling totally helpless it has to be that one. I didn’t truthfully know the answer to that myself. I told her that I was doing all I could to become healthy again and that the doctors were doing everything they could to help me. I explained that sometimes I would be very sick from the medicine I was taking but that it was helping me to get well again even if it didn’t always look like it. I had to reassure myself of this constantly. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but for me my cancer took on a whole new meaning once again. How deeply this affected those I loved!
I bought a wig, for I knew I would lose all of my long hair. My hair began to fall out in clumps and getting it cut short did not eliminate the mess. I finally opted to shave my head, something I had said very adamantly that I would never do. My husband and I, armed with razors, went into the bathroom and shaved every hair off of my head. I laughed and said it was true love when your husband will help you shave your head! Nothing can prepare you for going bald so suddenly, but at least I didn’t have to watch helplessly as it fell out. I felt I was taking control.
Amanda had a very hard time accepting my baldness at first. She cried, “You’re not my mama anymore! I hate you with bald hair! I want you to have long hair again.” Once again we had to reassure her. We told her that it would grow back once I was finished with the chemotherapy. After awhile she got used to my bald head and we even laughed about it. Elise thought I looked funny. The first time she saw me bald she laughed, patted my head, and gave me a funny look as if to say, “I don’t believe it. You’re playing a joke on me.” When she saw my wig on the kitchen counter she yelled, “Puppy!”. We still laugh about that one.
We tried to laugh as much as we could. Laughter feels wonderful when you’re down. I made a conscious effort to have a positive attitude and to rise above the heartache and pain. I had the right to grieve over my situation, but the key was to not make it a never-ending process. My motto was ‘Yesterday was a lesson I learned to help me get through tomorrow’.
Joining a breast cancer support group really helped me. Keeping a diary of my feelings became a big part of my life. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t write in it every day. Whenever I felt compelled I wrote. My children kept me focused. I paid more attention to their development. I was determined I was going to see them grow up. So I fought this disease in every way I knew how. My faith in God never strayed. He sustained me through my darkest hours. I knew I had nothing to fear once I put myself in his care completely. My husband and I threw ourselves into working on our house. Before we had lived in it a year the house was entirely renovated. I needed to see progress in my life. I had to know that the house would be done by the time I was finished with chemotherapy. I had the feeling while working on the house that we were both being transformed- the house back to its’ original state, and me back to my old healthy self again.
During my chemotherapy I had a series of colds and sinus infections, an inner ear infection and blood poisoning in my arm on the mastectomy side. There weren’t any lymph nodes left to fight infection on that side. Antibiotics became a big part of my life. I missed several treatments due to my blood count being too low. It must be said that having cancer is not cheap. It can be a tremendous financial burden. Between doctor bills and renovating our new house and the normal living expenses of a family of four we really learned how to make every penny count.
Deciding to quit work and stay at home with my children prior to my illness became a blessing in disguise. I was too sick to work as it was. I was exhausted and took naps every afternoon. Amanda had to stay with friends or her grandparents so I could sleep. She received plenty of attention from my family as well as my husband’s. It was a great consolation to know we were all living in the same town and I could call on them anytime I needed. If they weren’t available there were always friends to help out. The problem was that Amanda felt ignored by me and handled everything by lashing out in anger. When I told her to do something she acted as if she didn’t hear me. She was angry with me for getting sick and showed it by being naughty and not listening to me. In her own way she was trying to punish me for turning her world upside down. There were times when she really tried my patience. It was so easy to just get mad and yell at her, but I had to remember why she was acting the way she was. Mostly, I responded with love because that was what she really needed.
I was very protective of my children. I didn’t want them to endure any more pain than they already had to face. I felt very guilty about what I was putting Amanda through even though I knew what happened to me was beyond my control. We spent as much time as we could together, sometimes just talking or cuddling which helped her and also helped rid me of my guilt. I took her with me twice when I received my chemo treatments so she would know what was going on and not feel so much an outsider where my illness was concerned. I tried to return some sense of normalcy to her little life.
My husband had to be both mother and father at times and do everything around the house when I felt too sick and also had to keep up with his full-time job as a police officer. His strength and sense of humor helped me bear up against my cancer and all that went with it. I could not have made it through without him.
I have learned so much from having cancer. It has taught me how to live again and I’m grateful for everything around me. My family is even more precious to me now.
It has been over for a year now since I was diagnosed and my doctor says I’m cancer free, but every time I go for a checkup my mind returns to when this all started and I can feel fear creep in again. I am told with time the feeling of fear fades. I am considering having reconstructive surgery done. I have heard from other women that having this done puts the cancer behind them once and for all. It is a choice every mastectomy patient must make for herself. I feel if it gives a woman back her sense of ‘wholeness’ and puts the cancer in proper perspective then it is well worth it.
Breast self-examination saved my life and I am a firm believer in them. If I hadn’t been examining myself I may not have recognized the fact that there was something wrong. It is so important for a woman to get to know her own body and to see a doctor if she is worried about anything at all. No questions are foolish when it comes to health.
My family has adjusted well. Elise is 2 years old now. Her baby days are all but lost to me. She made such strides during my illness, but I don’t remember it. Whether it was the effects of the chemo or just that I have blocked that difficult time in my life out of my mind, I’m not sure. Suddenly it’s as if I have awakened from a long dream and she has gone from a cooing crawling baby to a walking talking toddler. I missed what was in between somehow, and that hurts. Instead of dwelling on the past I am concentrating on her new little personality emerging.
Amanda also has grown before my eyes. When I was first diagnosed she was finishing preschool. Now she is in first grade and reading! We will always share a closeness that was brought on by my cancer and that is something good that has come out of this.
Now that Steve and I have finished the house we can sit back and enjoy it. We spend a lot of time together as a family. Just being together is enough for me, for each new day I am reminded of the obstacle I have triumphed over.
When asked if I would still go through chemotherapy if I could go back and do it all over again, my immediate answer is “Yes!”. I look at it as my insurance policy against a recurrence. As sick as I got I also see chemotherapy as my friend- a friend that has helped me live so I can see my girls grow up. That is a precious gift.
My daughters will always have to be aware of breast care because of our genetic link. It saddens me to know that. I hope and pray by the time they grow up there will be more known about this disease to prevent it and cure it.
Mental imagery has helped me a great deal with my cancer. To calm myself I would close my eyes and imagine the most peaceful setting I know: the lake and woods of northern Wisconsin where I have vacationed in the summer ever since I was a little girl. The lake and the trees are a constant reminder of the beauty of nature and that life does indeed go on. The forest and water endure even through the most monumental of changes… and so must we.