Breast cancer has always been an issue that is important to me. My mother had several scares, and she and I have done the Komen Race for the Cure® every year for the past nine years. The strength and courage of survivors have always touched me, but last October, breast cancer touched me in a completely different way.
Jennifer is someone I consider a mentor. She's 40 (15 years older than me) with two small children, and someone I aspire to be like, both professionally and personally. When she told me she was sick, she didn't tell me she had cancer (much less breast cancer) but from everything she said and didn't say, I figured it out. I think on some level, she wanted to protect me because she knew how upset I would be.
When she told me, I stopped breathing. When I started again, everything had changed. She was so young, and looked healthy, and it was completely unexpected. All I could think was, "It's not supposed to happen like this. Not to her." Her outlook, on the other hand, was so optimistic and so positive, that she encouraged me to hold on to hope.
I was terrified. Just thinking about it or hearing talk of breast cancer on television, the radio or at work would drive me to tears. The fear and uncertainty were so strong that sometimes I didn't know how I would be able to feel it all. She meant so much to me and I never expected anything like this to happen to her. I felt helpless, because I knew I couldn't make this go away and I couldn't absorb any of the pain.
I'm a graduate student in a health psychology program at a medical school, so I read every oncology textbook I could from the library. Somehow reading about the molecular makeup of cancer was easier than wondering if Jennifer's hair was falling out or if she was in pain. I devoured journal articles, I read every book I could find on breast cancer, I signed up for the Breast Cancer 3-Day and my research projects for school were about psychosocial aspects of breast cancer. All of this helped alleviate some of the helplessness, but I wanted to do more.
After her lumpectomy, Jennifer started chemotherapy. Every other Friday, when she got her treatments, I would wonder if she was scared, if she had someone to go with her and if the chemo was making her sick. Every other Saturday, I'd wonder how she was holding up. We kept in touch by e-mail, and I burned and sent CDs to keep her occupied during chemo and cards or articles to read of things I found interesting and thought she would, too. I didn't know if any of this helped, but I hoped that they were at least a diversion from the world of chemotherapy.
Jennifer has been an inspiration. This past Mother's Day, I ran the Komen Race for the Cure(R) in honor and celebration of her. It is because of her that I broke through my own personal denial and started doing BSE every month. I spoke with her on the phone after she finished her radiation treatments and she sounds wonderful. She says she's doing well, and I hear her strength in her voice.
Every night I pray for her health. She is my role model. She once told me something that she lived throughout this whole experience. She said, "Jaime, we can't always control what happens to us. What we can control is how we respond to what happens to us." Amen.
Steve Del Gardo