By: Kathryn Phillips
So breast cancer month with all its pink and circumstance always leaves me conflicted. I have never wanted breast cancer to define me and yet it is undeniably part of the fabric of who I am. I was seventeen when my mother was diagnosed; a few years out of college when she died of the disease. I was thirty-four when I was diagnosed myself (and a mama of a three year old). I barely remember a time before breast cancer wasn’t part of me. And yet, I (like my mother) never loved advertising myself with the pink of breast cancer. It reminds me of pain and loss. It reminds me of what I do not have. And then I had a daughter and it all changed. I was most struck when she was about nine. “Mommy when am I getting breast cancer?”
Stunned and pained, I gasped for a response and before I could, she finished; “Because you had it, Grandma had it. I know I am getting it.” I felt my heart pound in my chest. I stumbled for words, and gave some sub-par, unsatisfying response in an effort to soothe her, but the truth is that this is what I continued to be worried about. I do not want her to be sick. I do not want it to be inevitable. I do not want it to have to be. And yet, she is having an experience that I never had.
When an old student of mine lost her mother to breast cancer a year after my mother died (almost to the day), she took her incredible sadness, pain and loss and she made magic. She created Runway for Recovery — an organization in which women (and families of women) that have either lost someone to breast cancer, had someone in their family with the disease or have had it themselves walk the runway to raise money to support families battling the illness. This annual event has changed the course of my girl’s life. We walk (or actually dance!) the runway together each year. It is her most favorite day of the year with all of its magnificent energy and love. It is the day she does not feel alone. It is the day she is surrounded by men, women and children who truly understand her world and her experience. Nothing needs to be explained. It is understood. And oh how she dances that night! We celebrated the Runway earlier this month, and I watched how my daughter opened the evening speaking to the crowd. She was calm. She spoke with assurance and a peace about her. I wept from the side with sadness that my mother never knew this creature who is the utter light of my life, with pride for this brave little girl standing on the stage and most of all I cried because I am desperate to watch her grow up. I will fight. I will always fight with every ounce of strength in me to see as many days as I can with her.
And I admit that this fight has not always been easy. Cancer changes so much. We are an unexpected (but very blessed) family of three (a perfect triangle with three essential points), as cancer took away options for a bigger family. The endless doctor’s appointments and check-up scans while comforting, are also exhausting. And then there was when I was actually sick. With all of the ups and downs, it was the hair loss that was embarrassingly one of my greatest (and most vain) challenges. I did not lose my hair gracefully. Not even a little bit gracefully. I had always thought I would shave my head if cancer ever came to my door. I was sure of it. I had watched my mother shave her head several times during the nine-year course of her illness. In fact, I have a most painful memory of being a teenager and walking in on my dad cutting my mother’s hair with those heavy metal kitchen sheers while she sobbed on the edge of the tub. She did not see me discover her, but later told me she was taking control and that is why she wanted to decide how her loss of hair would go down. Yet, when it was my turn, I canceled appointment after appointment until only a few faint ugly patches of hair remained and I was left with no other choice but to shave it off. It was harder than anyone said it would be and now, years later, I love hair. I appreciate hair. So when my daughter came to me several years ago and said she wanted to cut her long locks to donate them, I embarrassingly balked. Year after year, she has asked. At some point my husband gently said to me that I could not stop her anymore from doing this. It was clearly important to her. And he was right. She will donate her hair in a few short weeks to help someone who has lost her hair. I will be so proud. I will stand beside her watching her bravery. I expect to feel the heat of tears running down my cheeks, but my heart will be swollen with pride and love for this girl. She has learned that we are lucky and that we must give back.
People often will say that now I can appreciate life. Well, the truth is that I always did appreciate life, but even more now I see the beauty in each and every day.
The sun is a little bit warmer, the smell of the ocean is a bit sweeter. I notice the sparkling, colorful reflections on the Empire State Building as I drive down the Westside Highway, but most of all, I have deep love and appreciation for my friends and family. Such appreciation for every moment we share, every laugh and every smile. The group has gotten smaller and tighter as the years have passed. I love each person fiercely and intensely. I sit at a dinner table and take in their smiles, hear their laughter and love them wholly. I treasure the moments with my daughter. I breathe in the smell of her hair and feel the smoothness of the skin on her hands. I revel in watching her grow up. I appreciate every breakfast, and rush home from work to steal of few moments with her as she gets off the bus from school before sports practices.
My story is not that special or different. There are many women who are part of this club that we never signed up for, but I am getting it better now. I understand that my daughter sees the pink as not being alone. She sees the pink as being part of a team and I love that. While I will never be the one to adorn myself with pink ribbons, I smile as I see her soccer team’s socks decorated with pink ribbons flash on their quick legs this month. I am reminded that everyone gets to do it their own way and I am just so happy, and so very grateful, to have each and every day.
About the Author
Kathryn Bailis Phillips is first a mama and wife, and lives for her family and friends. She is a teacher, having taught both middle school and pre-kindergarten in her 16 years in the classroom. Born and bred in Boston, she now resides in New York City with her husband and daughter.
To find out more about Runway For Recovery, click here.
Brain Freeze is a series of stories by parents that celebrates the candid moments in which their children ask the most unexpected questions. The series is sponsored by Chloe’s Fruit, a brand of frozen treats made from only three ingredients: fruit, water, and a touch of organic cane sugar. Follow Brain Freeze for more stories, and sign up to receive coupons for Chloe’s Pops in your inbox.