I Am Become Cancer
When Adrienne first found the lump, there was nothing about my spidey-sense that made me think it might be cancer. My belief was that women her age didn’t get breast cancer, so it must be something annoying but benign that was related to all the hormones women have to deal with on a monthly basis. I’m not a head-in-the-sand type of gal, so my blissful ignorance of the fact that twenty-somethings do indeed get this awful disease made it all the more shocking when I picked up the phone and heard her say, “Mom…Mom…it’s cancer.”
Adrienne has a vibrant personality and a smile that lights up her face. One of her greatest fears when she was diagnosed and began treatment was that people would not see her anymore, that she would become her affliction. The loss of hair on her head and her face that made her diagnosis a very public affair was a daily hurdle to overcome whenever we walked out the door. Because most of the public is like I used to be, believing that breast cancer is a disease of older women, the struggle to reconcile what people saw when my bald-headed, hairless-faced daughter was standing in front of them in a cashier line or at a pharmacy counter or ANYWHERE usually resulted in what I affectionately call “The Look.”
“The Look” usually started out as confusion, like puppies tilting their heads at a new sound. Then it shifted into Don’t- stare-because-that’s-not-polite mode as the person in front of her tried to compute what they were seeing. And then came the worst part, the pitying I’m-so-sorry part of “The Look” that meant my girl had been cast in their minds as The Other, the person not like me because they have cancer and I don’t.
I always wished at those times that cancer also gave her magical powers that would let her create a huge force field around her that sparked and sizzled with energy, and she’d have balls of lighting flashing out of her eyes as she said in a godlike voice, “I AM BECOME CANCER.” You know, just to lighten the moment.
“The Look” was one of the reasons that Adrienne anxiously awaited the return of her hair. The eyebrows that weren’t artfully painted on, the eyelashes that weren’t held in place by superglue, and the hair growing long enough that it could be a style choice and not a recovery from chemo loss meant that her cancer experience once again could become a private one. She can go ANYWHERE now, and no one can, just by looking at her, cast her as The Other.
But… (you knew that was coming, right?)
Cancer is not a one-and-done. Cancer is a never-ending story. It seems like every few months there is another side effect of Adrienne’s various cancer treatments that rears its ugly head that must be dealt with, and Adrienne is by this time so resigned to that fact that she just shrugs her shoulders and carries on. Since she cannot manage the side effects without support, such as going to a lymphedema specialist to get a sleeve fitted, she can’t avoid sharing her diagnosis anew and too often that once again results in “The Look.” She also gets it when she has to share her medical history, like last week at the Covid-19 vaccine clinic. And every time it happens, it tosses her kicking and screaming back into the abyss of the worst experience of her life, because once again she disappears and becomes cancer.
And when she becomes cancer, she finds herself in the position of reassuring the person in front of her that she’s okay, that she was one of the lucky ones because her treatment worked and, for now, she’s in remission. Despite the emotions “The Look” has created, despite the fact that she wants to scream at the top of her lungs, she puts on that big bright smile and tries to make them feel better about the situation.
She does whatever she can to make them feel better. The young woman who had breast cancer at 27, who will deal with side effects for the rest of her life, who will be poked and prodded and have to wait for test results to see if it’s back, who has done a monumental job of trying to get her life back on track after navigating through a hellscape, tries to make them feel better.
And then she goes home, curls up on the couch with a glass of wine and messages her Mom.
That’s my girl.
Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure. When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed! Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.