Around 2004, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the day she told the family. She’d just come home from the hospital and the look on her face was grim. She didn’t hold back, telling my younger brother and me that the outlook was not good. Though that particular memory stays with me, my most vivid memories during that time aren’t so grim.
My mom—a former dancer for American Ballet Theatre, a teacher and a tireless advocate for young dancers everywhere—was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. She was also one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. She battled through radiation treatments, chemotherapy and countless surgeries only to come back stronger and more determined than before. And through it all, she maintained a sense of humor that could sometimes make us forget that she was struggling through chemo at all.
Cancer survivors, and family members of those who have battled cancer, often share similar stories of perseverance and strength. To the outsider who’s never experienced it before, those stories may seem like a big cliché. But as someone who’s seen those things happen firsthand, the cliché is what we treasure the most. Cliché is somehow the thing that spared us from a world turned upside down. And for me, the cliché was doing things like having long talks, dressing up and going to the ballet, or bringing flowers to my mom’s office (not for any special occasion, but because she deserved them). We shared laughs at our favorite Neapolitan pizza joint, where I still visit, though the pizza is never quite as good. And we took time to talk about the future, once I graduated college and such.
In some ways, that’s the blessing of cancer, if there is such a thing. In the few years before she passed, I think I spent more meaningful time understanding her life, her emotions and just how much she loved our family, even though I already knew it. Those are things I remember now, almost ten years later. And it reminds me to take advantage of life as it comes, because, well, you just never know. (Yet another cliché, but it’s true.)
I wish she were still around. I still get the itch to call her cell phone (which I did once, only to find that a baritone-voiced gentleman had been assigned her phone number) and I still have moments when I want to ask her for advice, questions that I can’t really ask anyone else. I miss her most when I share special occasions with my dad, my brother and my better half. She would have enjoyed those occasions.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as we honor and celebrate the strength of those who continue to persevere through difficult circumstances, I can’t help but think that I could be doing more. We all could. This month, I hope you’ll consider making a donation to the American Cancer Society or any number of cancer-research focused organizations, as I will. There are thousands, if not millions, of people who deserve our love, support and all the good clichés we can spare, from now until the end of time (and yes, I’m aware that’s cliché).