Breast [Cancer] Awareness Month: October, 1980

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I don’t know why October was selected as breast cancer awareness month, but for me it is tragically appropriate.

October 1, 1980 my mother died following an eight year battle against cancer.

by T.M. Burroughs

I prefer to call it breast awareness month. Partly because a male executive misspoke during a seriously boring meeting, announcing how our company would be celebrating breast awareness. We teased him about his Freudian slip endlessly. The other reason I prefer to leave out the C word is because it is through awareness of our breasts–monthly self exams, regular mammograms, etc.–that we women benefit from early detection. Besides, the men in our lives are constantly aware of our breasts, boobies, ta-tas; so why shouldn’t we?

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Chambersburg, Pa

In fact, my dad lamented a number of times that he hadn’t found mom’s lump himself. Trust me, it wasn’t for a lack of fondling. My dad was a very affectionate man who adored his wife of almost 40 years. They’d married while dad was a Private First Class in the U.S. Army during WWII.

Mom was half of a set of twins. Country girls from a small town in Pennsylvania. Dad worked on the turnpike while on leave from the army. He roomed at my grandmother’s boarding house. He first dated my aunt. Once the three of them went to my dad’s aunt’s home to play cards, as was a popular custom in 1941. Homemade wine was served in cordial glasses.

The twins had never drunk wine or liquor before, being only 18 at the time. So, naturally, they were reluctant to try it. But at some point in time, my mother saw that her sister’s glass was empty. Mom wouldn’t be outdone, so she gulped down the foreign drink in one swallow, only to find out that her twin had simply emptied hers into a nearby potted plant! That was a turning point, however, because my dad decided that the girl bold enough to chug a glass of wine was the girl for him!

Yeah, that was my mom, a woman who only rarely–when it was important–behaved in a less than ladylike manner. She was otherwise a modest woman, not the least bit vain. For makeup she wore only lipstick and eyebrow pencil. And at only 98 pounds when she married, she may have appeared frail. But she wasn’t. She was strong physically and morally. She raised five children with equal parts of loving attention and discipline.

In photographs, mom looked a little top heavy, her large breasts seeming out of proportion. Despite a trend in the fifties and sixties to bottle feed babies with commercial formula, mom really wanted to breastfeed all of us. But she couldn’t. The reason why remains a mystery. Her breasts just didn’t work for that. I can’t help but wonder if failing nursing was a pre-cancer symptom.

In any event, mom was never sick. Oh, she had hay fever as they called allergies back then. She’d sneeze sometimes 10-12 times in a row. But never anything major. No heart trouble. No kidney, liver, appendix or stomach problems. She was only in the hospital five times–to bear her babies, of which I was the last born.

Then, when I was in high school, mom went to the doctor for an physical, being overdue for one by about a decade. Dr. Castle performed a breast exam, and found a lump. The rest is all a blur to me. A ‘radical mastectomy’ was done, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Mom lost her hair. When it grew back it was as soft as silky fine thread, but still salt and pepper. She eventually seemed to be out of the woods. And we all could breathe relief for a few years.

Then, the cancer returned in the form of a blackish gray spot on mom’s clavicle. The spot looked like a cigarette burn, but its damage wasn’t limited to the 1/4 inch diameter of the gray ashy indentation. Mom became frail, unable to even hold a book on her lap for the pain. She resumed chemotherapy treatments and radiation. Her hair fell out again. And she bought two wigs–one hideous all gray and unstyled; one salt and pepper made of natural human hair, like mom’s own. She wore that one to my wedding.

My dad was a doting caregiver. He was in pain at watching mom’s health decline. Once when she had to be in the hospital for a short stay, I was waiting in the hallway for my dad after visiting mom myself. I looked up to see him arriving. He walked like he was taking on the world, wearing a wool overcoat not unlike a soldier’s. He took long strides, and wore a look of determination on his face as if he were about to rescue her from drowning. Or maybe he was reaching her to be rescued himself, as if the sight of her would ease his sense of urgency that afternoon. As if he needed to release a breath put on hold until they were together.

Mom never complained or whined about being sick. She never questioned God’s allowing it, knowing from her study of the Bible that unforeseen occurrences befall us all; even good people get cancer. Instead, she encouraged her children to carry on in living moral lives, working hard, and being loving to others.

I’ve tried to teach my three daughters my mother’s values. They’ve only gotten to know her through photographs and stories of my life with my parents and four older siblings. Because of my mother’s breast cancer, my three girls and I are breast aware, cleavage conscious, boobiful women who advocate mammograms for all women. Get yourself one.

P.S. When my mom died . . . she was 58.

THB

T.M. Burroughs

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