Eighth grade has a lot of ups and downs. Puberty. Zits. Extreme emotions. Trying to figure out how and where to fit in. Choosing your own clothing. Name brands. Becoming responsible for your school work in a more profound and potentially dangerous way. Body odor. School dances. Makeup. Dating. Wearing proper clothing outside. Coats aren’t cool. Or hats. Or mittens. Or boots.
That was the year my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
My dad picked me up at a friend’s house in our station wagon one day after school. I jumped in the back seat on top of the folded-down back row, and checked myself out in the mirror. “Sit back,” he warned me. “I have to tell you something.” He glared at me through the rear view mirror and loosely explained that mom was in her room, she’d had some results today and she was dealing with it upstairs, alone. “Don’t bother her.”
She had breast cancer.
I wondered if she’d come out. Why was she alone? Why in her room? What is he talking about? What’s a lump? Where did she find it? How? Why is he so mad? What are we going to eat for dinner? My baby sister was only 11 months old. My younger brother was six. My older brother was a sophomore. My mom was 41.
I was selfish – and clueless about all of it.
She had a lumpectomy – some radiation maybe – a short stay at the hospital. Strangers brought food for dinner. Dad was home a lot. Mom didn’t really talk about it. The details were vague. I kept on keeping on. I remember telling my basketball coach while shooting free throws. But only that one time. It didn’t feel big, like news.
When I was a sophomore, it came back. Mom spent a lot of time in the hospital, on and off, over a series of months. She had a mastectomy. No reconstruction. She lost her hair. There were blisters on her chest. Really big ones. Maybe from the radiation, possibly from the surgery. I remember, just once, my dad (a pathologist) removed the pooling fluid on her empty chest with a syringe. Mom sat up on the kitchen table, like we’d always done when she used to cut our hair. She held dish clothes up to her belly in case he missed. They were both laughing loudly, while they both cried. My dad was curt as we watched on from the hallway, “Keep your sister busy somewhere else.” My little sister was five.
She didn’t let him do that a second time.
Fifteen years later, we’re on a very special Moore girls trip to Hawaii. My sister-in-law finds out she’s having her first baby. My mom finds out the cancer has moved to her bones. My daughter, Madison, was 18 months old.
When my parents told us, I didn’t realize cancer could do that. I didn’t know it could move somewhere else. Transform. Get smarter. I didn’t know what metastatic meant. I figured she’d beaten it before, she’d beat it again. She had been so lucky for so long. I didn’t know metastatic meant stage 4. Or that there only are 4.
Sometime in the middle of her mastectomy and the cancer recurring, my grandmother, my mom’s mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her 70s. I remember being told that breast cancer, at her age, was not uncommon. She lived to see her 90s. Dying of old age, and a broken heart – my grandfather past the summer before. Mom didn’t go to her funeral. She was fighting her own battle and couldn’t risk being in public with a low white blood cell count.
Cancer consumed her at 62. She lived 21 years after her initial diagnosis. Today she’d be 74.
I started having mammograms regularly when I was 30, between delivering and nursing each of my three babies. I was diagnosed when I was 43. Stage 3. Grade 2. Triple positive (estrogen, progesterone, HER2). I had 19 lymph nodes removed. I endured over 12 surgeries, six rounds of chemo (carboplatin and taxotere), 33 rounds of radiation, and 18 infusions of hercepton and perjeta. I was treated for 13 months. My children were 8, 11 and 14 at the time. Today, I am 46.
Tonight, I sat on our kitchen table while my oldest daughter (17) took pictures of me, exposing my scars, for her next art project. Her portfolio painting project is focused on the idea of self, and what you don’t see, even in your own reflection. She plans to paint the portrait from the photos and then physically stitch the scars into the canvas. She arranged lights and gave art direction, but when it was time to reveal my scars, the tears started to flow.
“I had just finished eighth grade, Mom, when you were diagnosed.”
About Jeni Moore
I was diagnosed at age 43 with stage 3 IDC.
I found a lump myself, in the shower. It was a malignant lymph node.
I received chemo, radiation, a bilateral mastectomy and an oophorectomy.
I am not BRAC1 or BRAC2 positive. I am Chk2 positive. I have a long family
history of breast cancer.
I’ve been a “better half” for 20 years.
I’m a mother of three amazing kids and one ridiculously horrible dog.
I’m a graphic designer by day and a would-be potter by night.
And I am also a survivor.
You can read more of Jeni’s story here.