My mother died at 56 from metastatic breast cancer. Four years after her death, a more aggressive form of the disease reared up in me.
At diagnosis my mother had tried to save her "femininity", which was tied to the look of her body and how others saw her. She accepted the pills that lowered her oestrogen levels, but not the chemical cocktail of chemotherapy that would make her ill, or the radiotherapy that could burn her. During 10 years of "battling" the disease, my mother chose a radical non-chemical treatment from Germany and high-dose infusions of vitamin C, which did not work.
At the hour of my diagnosis it was as if my mother returned, angel-style, to talk with me.
I believe fear, or a kind of terror, defined my mother's choices. She found the softly, softly approach of alternative treatments easier. The decisions I'd witnessed my mother make showed me the better ones to take when the tumour came for me; and to not fear the reality of cancer and its treatment.
From the age of 27 I had an ultrasound every year due to my mother's prior diagnosis. At 35, the radiographer palpated the hard, peasized lump in my right breast and asked, "Have you felt this?"
I answered "no", but in my mind I thought "cancer".
Life choices were easier after watching my mother die. When my death knell tolled, I chose conventional chemotherapy and a drug that leeched my fat of oestrogen. I've taken Arimidex for nine years now. Its standard regimen is 10.
My mother had agreed to a surgeon cutting away the cancer only. I allowed surgeons to cut off both breasts, remove my tumour and the lymph nodes that drained to it, and to take out my ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb and cervix.
At 35, I was desexed. My son was 10 months old.
At the hour of my diagnosis it was as if my mother returned, angel-style, to talk with me. We had many backand-forth conversations about cancer's reflection. You look in the mirror after the news and there's the end of your life staring back. All superficial concerns strip away and you're left with the raw stuff: who you love; who you don't; what you truly want in life and what you don't.
My mother raised me to reflect on how I behaved and to examine the assumptions behind my beliefs. She was an academic who lectured in the history and philosophy of science. Her PhD thesis, which was one chapter from completion when she died, was on unblocking the stalemate between scientists developing GMO crops and concerned farmers and food buyers. My mother challenged authority: patriarchal, educational and medical.
When my first – and only – child was born, I needed my mother like never before. My chances for a second child had evaporated as starkly as the news of the disease. Without her, I turned to what I'd learnt from her – how to make decisions that alter your horizon.
However, like all life lessons learnt on the coattails of a parent, some are through example, others through what they tell you to do. "Do what I say, not what I do," was a joke she made. Her last words to me were, "You're being so brave, darling."
I'd walked out of her hospital room to drive dear friends of hers to a clifftop cafe for lunch, to entertain and thank them for travelling up to see us. There was no map outlining what was important and what was not.
Every decision I made as my mother's carer stays imprinted on my mind. If only I'd stayed with her to tell her I loved her before she slipped into a coma. To thank her for mothering me.
But her death saved my life.
In the year I cared for her I decided to pursue my secret desire to write. That year defined my resolve to follow what I love, and to live how I want.
This led to my gaining a master's degree in young-adult writing. I started the degree before diagnosis, then finished it afterwards. Writing helped heal scars not visible to the outside world; it was my room with a view, where I could exist separate from my cancer treatments and body aches.
Thirteen years after my mother's death, our book was published.
My mother's death steered me to where I am now: an author, a proud mother, and cancer free.
In Danger: A Memoir of Family and Hope by Josepha Dietrich (UQP) is out now.
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