“This will doom my daughter,” my wife Uzma said while we were waiting for the results of her breast biopsy in 2013.
As expected, the news of Uzma’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2013 brought fear, anxiety, and sadness of unprecedented proportions in our life.
What will happen to me?
What if the surgery doesn’t take out everything?
Will chemotherapy work?
How will I survive chemotherapy?
How will we manage all this with our young kids?
These were some of the questions I remember Uzma asking back then. Almost anyone with a heart can imagine that someone with any cancer diagnosis would ask these questions.
But worrying that early about our daughter and her risk of breast cancer is something that only mothers and those who can learn to listen to mothers can understand. This concern was a recurrent visitor to Uzma and my discussions.
She knew it was no fault of hers that she got breast cancer. When determining a woman’s breast cancer risk, doctors ask, “Do you have a first-degree relative who was ever diagnosed with breast cancer?” And our daughter’s answer will always have to be an unequivocal yes. Uzma never could get this thought out of her head.
It wasn’t something she dwelled on a lot because there was nothing she could do about it. It was the hand that fate had dealt mom and daughter.
There was also a part of Uzma that thought there was a silver lining to her diagnosis. Two of her aunts had breast cancer. But because her mother did not, this family history did not matter in determining Uzma’s risk of breast cancer. Uzma believed that had her mother also had this scourge, her own dense breasts might have led to more aggressive investigations. And it might have made the difference between being diagnosed at Stage 2 vs. Stage 3. That would have meant a difference a prognosis. Uzma believed that her cancer will give our daughter a better chance at an earlier diagnosis.
There was a third reason that Uzma learned not to dwell too much on our daughter’s risk. It was the knowledge that genes aren’t everything. Which genes influence changes in our bodies at which times in our lives are affected by various environmental factors. The the quality of our childhood, our diet, our physical activity, and stress are some of the things that are known to affect which genes get turned on and hen. While genetics has come a long way in the last couple of decades, we still don’t know how to turn on and turn off cancer genes in a way that will make a difference in people’s lives. Even though our daughter’s risk of breast cancer will always be greater than a person without a family history, as long as we help our daughter grow to be a psychologically resilient, physically active person who eats healthy, her risk could be lowered.
[A word about the featured photo: This is a print that Uzma purchased about ten years ago, and it hangs prominently in our home in a large frame. It depicts Lord Krishna and his mother, Yashoda. Yashoda was not his biological mother but raised him as her own. Hindu children grow up hearing stories of her love for Krishna, who would have been a handful for any mother due to his mischief and daredevilry. Uzma was not a Hindu, but the image touched her as something that beautifully captures the bond between mother and child. When he was about two years old, our son believed that this image was of Uzma and him. Later, when our daughter was about two years old, she thought that it was Uzma and her. They both outgrew that belief, but there’s something in this image that captures and conveys maternal affection even to a child.]
I continue to benefit from your fidelity to the memory of you wife. Our family suffered the same loss at nearly the same time. I had an opportunity to express my gratitude to your wife for her exceptional writing. Your continued dialogue is commendable. The psycho-social support needed for those in treatment, their caregivers and family is often overlooked. As you both have written, we focus so much on the medicine and the science there is little room left for the other…
Yet, that work must be done too.
My children and I began counseling in the final two years of my wife’s life. We worked through an organization dedicated to helping children with parents dealing with a terminal diagnosis. There is no way to shortcut the grieving process (an odd phrase, but it is the convention we all recognize.) I’d like to think it gave us tools to navigate what we dreaded but could not forestall.
Thank you for shedding light on the importance counseling. There is benefit, and it is worth the time and effort to help move forward and to manage the many challenges of losing a parent and spouse.
Mr. Winick – Thanks for your kind words. I am so glad that counseling is helpful to you. I wish it were available to more people and more people would look for it. I checked out your website Regarding Cancer. You are doing good work. May your work keep helping people beyond anything they imagined.