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By Esther Garza
This article originally published on GetHealthyStayHealthy.com
Life is really good right now. I just had a birthday, and I’m happy to have had it, too! Getting here was challenging, but I was raised to persevere. Here’s my breast cancer story. My hope is that it will help other women who are going through a similar experience and inspire them to lend a helping hand to others.
My breast cancer journey
Twelve years ago, I found a lump in my breast. My doctor checked it out and didn’t think it was anything to worry about. The plan was to keep an eye on it. Three months later at a follow up appointment, I learned that I had advanced (or metastatic) breast cancer. To make matters even worse, this happened at a really stressful time in my life. I had just gotten a divorce, recently moved, and started a new job. Dealing with my new breast cancer diagnosis in addition to everything else was challenging enough, but telling my adult children about the cancer was a challenge of its own. How does a mother tell her children, no matter how old they are, something like this?
I really didn’t know how to talk to them about it. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to not tell my sons right away. Fortunately, they weren’t living at home, so it was easier for me to pick and choose what I told them and when. My diagnosis wasn’t good, so when I did tell them, I didn’t mention negative things like, “My doctors think I might have 5 years to live.” Instead, I spoke about my treatments and medical appointments, and short and simple things like that. I also made sure that they didn’t see me have a meltdown or get upset. In the end, this worked for me and my sons took it very well.
Tips for talking with your children about cancer
I don’t think there’s one right way to do this. After all, everyone’s different and has different family dynamics, emotional reactions, and concerns. But there were a few things that worked for me when talking with my sons.
Get support. Find someone to give you guidance—if possible, someone who has been through what you’re going through. I personally didn’t know anyone with cancer, but had I been more aware of available resources at the time, I would have reached out to a support group.
Talk in person. Even though my sons were grown and out of the house, I waited until we could talk face to face. I gave my sons the opportunity to ask questions and share their feelings or whatever was on their mind.
Keep it simple. Give your children the basic facts. For example, stay away from sharing too many details or from reciting statistics that paint a picture that may be too bleak.
Give them information over time. This will help you avoid overwhelming your children. They may need time to process everything.
Stay calm and be positive. How you say something can be as important as what you say.
Help from others
My friends at work saw me day to day and they’d say “Hey, can I bring you a casserole?,” so I never had to worry about cooking—that was great! I also had a lot of support from my family, especially my parents. They lived with me for a couple of weeks at a time after a surgery or anytime I needed them. I owe a lot to them for sure. My sons came home often to help me take care of the house and drove me to my appointments. I was frank with those close to me, but didn’t tell everyone around me everything I was going through. I shared what I could and they stood by me.
Still, I felt a little lonely in that I didn’t know anyone else with metastatic breast cancer. My doctors and nurses focused on my disease and treatment, but I was pretty much on my own when it came to dealing with fear, sadness, and all my other emotions. I really wanted to talk to someone who knew what it felt like to go through what I was going through. I did attend a support group for people diagnosed with breast cancer and it was helpful, but I really wanted to talk with others who were facing metastatic breast cancer. There are unique issues a “mets” patient has to deal with. And those first few months were rough. Thankfully, I eventually found a support group specifically for women with metastatic breast cancer.
Fortunately, it’s very different today. With so much being done for breast cancer awareness, I feel that available resources for patients with breast cancer and their family members, such as support groups, are easier to find. I think we’re actually at the point now where we can move past breast cancer awareness efforts and focus more time and funding on medical research.
I’m at a good place with my breast cancer and in my life where I’m physically able to try to help other women with breast cancer. There are a lot of women in my support group who are newly diagnosed or in the middle of breast cancer treatment, and I feel a responsibility to share what I went through and support them. I have the strength and the time to give back and pay it forward for these women.
As a woman of color, I also think that Latino women and other minorities sometimes fall through the cracks in that resources, information, and education don’t seem to reach them. I feel that's one area where I can lend more support, too.
Regardless of skin color, I encourage all women to advocate for themselves. If you feel that something’s not right with your health, pursue it and speak up for yourself. After all, you know your body better than anyone else. And don’t put off getting screened—including self-screening. Although some women, like me, are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer from the start, early detection is still important.
Looking to the future
I have a lot to live for, and I’m excited for the future. I have two new beautiful granddaughters. I’m also engaged to a wonderful man. When we met, I didn’t have any hair and didn’t know how long I had to live, but Patrick still wanted to marry me. That was a sure sign that positive things were still happening!
People often ask me how I stay so positive. This is what I tell them:
- Have something to look forward to. Plan to take a trip (even if it’s a short daytrip), attend an event or social gathering, or be a role model for someone.
- Expand your horizons. Do something out of your comfort zone, learn something new, or try something you’ve always wanted to try.
- Get moving. Take a walk, dance, or get some exercise (even if it’s only small movements).
- Keep busy. Do things that will take your mind off your situation, even if it’s only for a short while. Take up a hobby, read, or find a way to express your creativity.
- Look for and appreciate the simple things in life...they're out there!
On a final note, I mentioned earlier that I was raised to persevere, to not give up and to keep fighting. That’s what helped me get through all of the challenges I’ve faced in life—including breast cancer. But I wouldn’t be able to continue to go through my breast cancer journey without the support of my sons, family, friends, and coworkers by my side. We can’t do this alone, so let’s go at it together.
Esther is a mother, grandmother and metastatic breast cancer patient and an advocate within the Latina breast cancer community. Esther works for the Texas Historical Commission.