Facing Breast Cancer Like a Man

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“Hmmm… ” Slow intake of breath. “That’s right… It’s your dad who had the breast cancer…” recognition dawning as he squints at the data on the computer screen.

A solemn nod from me.

“Two separate occurrences?” he asks, though it’s more of a statement as he already knows the answer which is spelled out in clear Helvetica 10-point on the monitor before his spectacled eyes.

“Yes.”

We share a moment of deliberate eye contact. I look away first. He turns back to the digital records with renewed concentration.

No one enjoys flummoxing their doctor, unless it’s some singular distinction of good health, like having perfect cholesterol levels, or never having taken an antibiotic in one’s entire life. I can claim neither.

But I do have an exceptional family medical history. My mother died suddenly due to complications of lung cancer surgery at the age of 51. Surprisingly, it generally merits barely a second glance. The detail that sets up the backs of even the most mild-mannered healthcare professionals is my dad’s ominous diagnosis from 28 years ago. By now, I’ve come to expect it, the raised eyebrows, the double take, and even the audible gasp. At my physical this week, the pow wow with the doc started in a very orthodox manner as he perused my records. But once he was confronted with the little stray tidbit that my father is my primary link to breast cancer…

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Feel free to reread to make sure you’ve gotten that right. Yep, it was my dad who had breast cancer, my perfectly ordinary, masculine, male father had breast cancer. To be even more clear, for those of you struggling to comprehend this medical oddity, he did not have a fleshy chest like most women; he had a normal one, typical of any man, that just so happened to be the unlikely target for malignancy, hence the “breast” cancer

The rest of my own medical history contains nothing out of the ordinary beyond that little nugget of circus freakishness. Yet, doctors, colleagues, and even friends are continually stunned at the discovery. I resort to an almost auto-pilot explanation in response to their incredulity.

“No. Not my mom. It was my father who had the breast cancer…”

Look of confusion.

“Your dad had breast cancer? How is that even possible?!”

My beloved dad who has been deceased for nine years underwent two mastectomies. The first surgery was a success. But he developed cancer again on the other side many years later. It was a few years after his second mastectomy, that we learned the surgery hadn’t eradicated all the cancerous cells. The radiologist’s report detailed a suspicious dark spot on his lower spine. The cancer had metastasized.

For almost ten years, my father, a WWII veteran, valiantly lived with breast cancer. While it was literally in his bones, it also manifested in bumps and lesions on his scalp, face, and neck. His barely-there chest was marred with two skin craters where his pecs used to be—the scars a visible reminder of his unusual struggles with an otherwise female disease.

This unusual story is detailed in my medical files. Dare I forget, I am often forced to rewrite it at every new doctor appointment where family history is required with the standard paperwork. Beyond the paper trail evidence, it is profoundly memorialized elsewhere. It is indelibly inscribed on my own heart. On most days, I live with the memory of my dad’s battle and our strange genetic link in the same way I deal with other hereditary characteristics, such as my short stature, or the dark circles around my eyes. There’s no changing it. I wish that it wasn’t the case, but alas, it’s just who I am. I’m gratefully resigned to my doctor’s recommendation for a yearly mammogram and breast MRI. They’re tracking me closer than an escaped tiger at the zoo. Other days, I face it with less aplomb. Twice I have received troubling results that required a follow-up. Once I had to endure a needle biopsy. I cried as I put on the hospital gown. The biopsy was negative. But it is a constant challenge to accept and make peace with my strong genetic proclivity for the disease.

Though I’ve come to expect a reaction from others when they learn about my dad—I still bristle as I did in the doctor’s office this week. It’s hard to take the concerned, knowing looks. I don’t blame the doctor. I acknowledge it’s a strange thing. I live with the threat of a disease that has afflicted so many women…and my father.

My dad endured a lot—endless doctor visits, being poked, prodded and scanned regularly, incontinence, blood transfusions, frailty, fatigue, and pain. I witnessed his decline. Amazingly, it was not the metastatic breast cancer that claimed his life. While it undoubtedly weakened him beyond measure, it was a combination of old age and the strain of heart problems that eventually overpowered him. But I will never forget how he faced his breast cancer like the man that he was. He bore it heroically and united his pain with Christ’s suffering on the cross. When I recall his example, I am better able to confront those sobering reactions and the uneasy feelings they elicit within me.

Traditionally a pink ribbon commemorates those afflicted with breast cancer. We’ve all seen the pink roses, hats, shirts and soft, feminine marketing campaigns meant to increase awareness. Although my swarthy, handsome father of Italian descent could sport pastel shirts with a movie star quality—I don’t think the pink ribbon is an accurate representation of his journey. He faced breast cancer like a man, with quiet masculinity, remarkable determination, and fortitude. That’s how I will remember his honorable clash with a so-called woman’s disease. And that’s how I will model my own journey into the unknown. May God strengthen us all as we aim to look our weaknesses straight in the eye. 

My next breast MRI is slated for June. I will continue to confront my worries head-on. I’m fairly confident the reactions will keep coming, but so will my grit and resolve. I am my father’s daughter after all.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Beloved Children

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Bear with me. I’m about to brag about my kids. Proud mama alert! Go ahead. Look away and grumble, but there’s no putting this exuberant lioness back in her cage.

And I’m not embarrassed to admit that you will probably be quite underwhelmed by the source of all this maternal delight. It’s neither a virtuoso violin performance nor a  prize-winning science project. In fact, none of my kids even plays an instrument, (excluding kazoo) or cares a whole lot about making scientific breakthroughs. (Sadly, there’s no fighting genetics.) I am fully aware the rest of the world will consider the source of my pride as something banal and utterly unexceptional.

Nonetheless, it causes me to light up like a roman candle in a cloudless, dark country sky.

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Boasts & Pot Roasts: New Year / Old Me!

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Is it only me, or is it getting harder and harder to focus?! Since the inauspicious purchase of my so-called smartphone, I’m beginning to feel dumber and dumberer. I used to read a whole lot more—not just those vacuous fashion/entertainment magazines that seem to secretly breed like rabbits in my dentist’s waiting room. I used to read actual books… regularly for Pete’s sake! My hope for the new year is not New Year/ New Me. Nope. My plan rather is New Year/ Old Me. I plan to put the devices down and pick up books, just like I did in the olden days of yore. Yee-haw! I’mana get me edu-ma-cated in 2019! (And in case my first born spelling/grammar drill sergeant should read this, the mistakes are intentional!)

As we all know, transitions take time. So, before diving too deeply into those heavily word-laden dusty old books, how about some other suggestions to whet your intellectual appetite? After all, the libraries of Rome were not built in a day. They had libraries, right? Oh boy. Note to self: sprinkle some Roman history into the reading list. Before I get to my recommended reading Boasts for you, I’ll share some leads that may act as a springboard towards more book-learnin’.

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Feasting, Fasting & Perfection

What’s your take on fasting? If you’re a well-adjusted God-fearing, healthy individual, it’s always a good thing, right? Recently, God the Father surprised me by His answer.

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Why am I even thinking about fasting now?! According to the liturgical calendar, we are squarely in a season of feasting. Woohoo! Lemme at the goodies! Yesterday we marked the joyful feast of the Epiphany. Our family joined another family at a doughnut shop after Mass. And what says feasting better than greasy fried cakes covered with icing and sprinkles? Nothing in my book. While I did manage to refrain from partaking in the sugary treats this time, the truth is, ever since Christmas Eve I have taken to the feasting principle like a portly duck to buoyant waters. Who doesn’t enjoy all the great foods that accompany our jubilant holy days during the Christmas season? I single-handedly made enough pizzelles to supply the Italian World Cup soccer team for a good year. Santo Cielo!

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Crying as We Rejoice: The Bereaved at Christmas

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I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.

On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.

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Into the Deep of Advent

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We are in the home stretch of Advent. Christmas is so close we can all nearly taste it. But resist!

I took part in a cookie swap earlier this week and all those mouth-watering varieties are calling my name. Ok, I’ve sampled a few. But I’m done. I’m holding out for the big event. They will taste all the sweeter on Christmas Eve. The waiting makes the celebration that much more dramatic, reverent and thrilling. It’s almost party time, folks—one of the biggest feast days of our Church. If you’ve ever wondered why we collectively bow our heads during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, it’s because we are recognizing our belief in the most fundamental mystery of Christianity: That in Jesus Christ, God actually became man, born of a woman by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Incarnation, the most sacred moment in all of human history. That is why we require some serious prep time.

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. -GK Chesterton

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A Mother For All

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When I was a wee lass, my grandma came to stay with our family for what seemed to me to be an extended period of time. It may have been in reality only a week or two, but to my fuzzy childhood memory, it was longer than usual. And yet, it felt excruciatingly too short.

When she stayed with us, it meant there was a smiling, warm face to greet me after an arduous half-day of kindergarten. My loving parents were hard-working Catholic school teachers trying to carve out a meager living, so they dealt with childcare by entrusting us kids with the heavy responsibility. My brothers were tasked with unlocking the door and not burning down the house until my parents returned a couple hours later. But as the youngest, they wisely thought it best I should spend my after-school time with adult supervision. It was arranged for me to stay with a neighbor mom who had a daughter my age. While we lived only two doors down from each other and attended the same school, our families were very different. My “little” playmate was at least twice my size and a physical and emotional brute. Today she’d probably be characterized by that popular buzzword, “bully,” but I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it back then. To add insult to injury, this mean girl’s mom was pretty mentally checked out and had a knack for turning a blind eye to her daughter’s mean-spirited mischief. She even mocked me when I complained. So I learned to quietly suffer through those seemingly interminable four hours, day after day.

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