I was a child, about 7, when my mother started breast-cancer treatments.
I don’t have many clear memories from the time.
I do remember seeing her post-surgery. To me, even though she had lost weight, her body seemed bigger — like she had expanded on the hospital bed.
I remember feeling frustrated that my younger sister acted oblivious to what was happening.
I remember recurring nightmares about my mother dying.
I remember tearfully relaying the narrative from one of these nightmares to her, childishly expecting she would promise me death could not touch her. But instead, she could only rub my back and acknowledge that “it” sucked.
Today, as an adult, I recognize that I still hold onto behaviors and mental habits from that period of our lives — a distrust in permanence, a tendency toward rumination and a near-constant certainty of “it” being the worst case.
Cancer’s impact on the body is often wrecking, permanent, as is its treatment. The physical is often what we focus on because it’s all-consuming and visibly altering. But the invisible impact carries a complicated psychological weight as well.
Cancer isn’t something that you can erase. Once it hits your family, you are hit. You will be impacted.
“There are lifelong potential changes,” said Michele Betts, manager for social work at the Mountain States Tumor Institute at St. Luke’s.
Instead of preventing the unavoidable altering, Betts said she and other counselors work to help people through the change that comes with disease, caretaking and mourning.
“If we can work with the family ahead of time and educate them and bring down their anxiety, show them or reference other cases, it does mitigate some of the negative impacts,” Betts said. “I know folks — certainly they were changed — but then you get into that topic of resiliency.”
Cancer is not something you can make pretty, and Betts wasn’t trying to bright-side. But she insisted that it is worthwhile to note the growth an individual — and a family — can experience while going through this type of crisis.
Before my mom’s cancer, I remember thinking I was the toughest 7-year-old in the entire world. I could climb any tree I felt like, as high as I felt like. I had asthma, but getting winded didn’t stop me from running.
It was terrifying then, as a child, to meet a limit of my own strength, when I learned my mother might not survive, that she would endure months of treatment, surgery and painful days.
When cancer hit my family it was scary, painful and even boring. Until recently, I considered it a useless scar on my past, like other unpleasantness that weakened me when I was too young.
But I didn’t stop climbing trees after cancer. I didn’t stop running despite inevitably breaking into wheezing. Crisis didn’t change those abilities, even if it altered some of my perceptions of the world.
Lately, I’ve considered other mental habits that stuck with me since that crisis — a reflex towards softness that still remains, squishy as all get out, through every unpleasantness. Though sheepish about this squishiness, it’s something I’m glad has stuck.
About 20 years after getting the all-clear from her doctors, my mother is a testament to resiliency. Her sense of humor is light, her tone chipper. She goes on long-distance bike rides, geeks out over new recipes and long-read articles.
Cancer and family crises are unfortunately not unique circumstances. At some point, most families will have to face their own version. Fortunately, resiliency isn’t unique either.