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

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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Radio-Active (my national radio interview!)

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Last week I was on the radio! And I didn’t even have to get out of my bathrobe. My recent post about the etiquette of speaking to those who are grieving got the attention of a national Catholic radio show. A producer from “Morning Air” on Relevant Radio contacted me via email asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed about my essay, “I cried with Michael Jordan.” So, I peeled myself off the ceiling and quickly replied yes. A couple days later, after gravely bribing my children to remain silent in the background, I was live on the air with John Harper of the “Morning Air” show. I can’t help thinking my parents were smiling down on me since I finally got to use the Radio part of my Radio/TV/Film degree from the exorbitantly priced Northwestern University. Thanks, mom, and dad! (My mom used to urge me to apply wherever I wanted. “If you get in,” she’d remind me, “I’ll clean toilets to cover the cost if need be.”) Such parental sacrifice they modeled for me.

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I Cried with Michael Jordan

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Certain iconic sports images of epic underdog wins and poetic last plays witnessed over the course of my life remain imprinted on my brain. Consider Tiger Woods dramatically donning the green Masters’ blazer as the first person of color, Michael Phelps shattering the record for the most gold medals, the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series triumph against my beloved Cleveland Indians. I could easily go on, but there’s one memory that is even more enduring. Yet, I suspect many of you probably won’t even recall it.

For me, the moment crystallized not just a legendary sporting achievement, but an encounter with sadness and mourning in the midst of victory. It was Father’s Day, 1996. Michael Jordan had just won his 4th championship for the Chicago Bulls. His win was rendered even more momentous after a brief retirement and triumphant return to the sport that made him a household name. Also notable, this marked Jordan’s first major career win without the support of his father in the stands. Jordan’s dad had been murdered three years earlier.

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Fantasy Mom

Today is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, a singular event that undoubtedly forever changed me. While the sting has lessened over time, I still struggle with the profound loss almost on a daily basis. It informs my thoughts and dreams, which may explain why I wrote this essay.

gabriel-sanchez-265726-unsplash (1)(Photo by Gabriel Sanchez on Unsplash)

Don’t tell anyone, but for quite a long time I’ve had a Fantasy Mom. Just as four-year-olds will gleefully gush about their imaginary friends, I’d like to brag about my Fantasy Mom. She’s the most loyal, loving, funny, kind and of course, wise mother who ever did NOT exist. Fantasy Mom is an intricate combination of my real mom, and every warm,  maternal character I’ve admired over the years.

Fantasy Mom firstly derives from the foremost matriarch, the very real Blessed Mother who quietly, yet staunchly remained at her son’s side during His greatest suffering. Despite doubtless unimaginable dread and fear, she never wavered. I’m confident she journeys alongside me too, especially as I navigate life’s more dodgy roller coasters. Her presence offers such peace and calm. She’s certainly my gold standard for all mothers. So how do you improve on sinless perfection? I mentioned this was a fantasy, right? 

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Weeping on Easter

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Photo by: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Without fail, the tears start welling up at almost the exact same time. It’s always Easter Mass. I could set my watch to it, but I’d never dare because the annoying alarm would draw even more attention at a time I’d prefer to simply disappear. Like it or not, there’s no stemming the tide of my mounting emotions. I bow my head and clench my eyes shut hoping no one around me notices. Usually, I get by without drawing too much attention to my red nose and watery eyes. But occasionally my reaction is so intense, a series of muffled involuntary sniffles gives me away. The kids or my husband will look at me with startled questioning eyes. My children especially probe my face with their intense, troubled looks. To lessen their worry, I flash a huge toothy smile and roll my eyes to let them know I’m fine—not only fine, I’m overcome with sheer joy. These are tears of complete happiness.

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Blessed Are the Forgotten

There are a total of eight beatitudes. I know because I’ve counted them. In case you’d like to confirm that for yourself, knowing my spotty scriptural knowledge as a cradle Catholic, have at it. Check it out for yourself in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5 to be exact. As perfect as I consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount, if I had my say, I’d suggest that the Almighty add just one more. Yep, I’m about to try and improve perfection by adding to one of Christ’s most powerful and stirring proclamations on the Kingdom of God. That takes guts. I know. But bear with me.

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