"She will know of her fears so that she can hopefully learn from them as I have..." Erika LeFevre
Updated: Nov 15
My mother was a breast cancer survivor until she wasn’t and what I’ll never know is whether she could still be a survivor today had she only sought help sooner. Her name was Maria Victoria and she was the true caretaker of our family in many ways. She worried about everything and was therefore cautious and overly cautious about so much in life yet she was always so busy caring for her children and my father that she rarely took time to care for herself. When I was in the 2nd grade, my maternal grandmother, called Mamacita by all of her grandchildren, passed away from breast cancer. I remember she was in her 60’s and I remember being picked up early from school that day and told of her passing when we reached the car. I remember my mother going into her room when we got home and closing the bedroom door behind her for several hours. I had never seen my mother hurting before so the memory of what that was like to have her on the other side of a door not wanting to be comforted by us or near us has never left me.
As I got older and became an adult myself I began to encourage my mother to get regular checkups for breast cancer because I knew she was scared that she too might develop it someday. She said as much in so many words and said more than once that she didn’t want to get a mammogram because she was scared of a positive result. All I could think was that if it was positive then you can still get help and the earlier you catch it the more successful the help will be. Despite my encouragement and pleading over the years my mother still refused those checkups until one day in October 2018 when she finally agreed she could no longer delay care. I had gone to visit my parents with my son, then 5 years old, and very quickly upon seeing my mother I knew that something was wrong physically. Despite wearing a loose button down top, her left breast was noticeably larger than her right. I commented to her immediately and she said she knew that she needed to go to a doctor. I was completely alarmed at what I saw and horrified that she’d waited so long to seek help. My father’s birthday was coming up later that week and she insisted that she wait until after his birthday. To my father’s credit he had been pleading with her for months to see a doctor but she still hesitated. Despite his and my encouragement the one person that convinced her to see a doctor was my son. That weekend that we visited, he was sitting on the floor with her playing with toys and my mother had difficulty getting up from the floor just due to her age…still my son said to her “Oma, I think it’s time you see a doctor.” And while he meant that comment innocently and for a completely different reason, she took it as a sign that it was time. True to her word, she and my father went to see a doctor the day after his birthday and my mother was then immediately admitted to a hospital that same day and scheduled for an emergency surgery the following day to remove her left breast.
Her cancer was in stage 4 and she was about to enter the toughest fight of her life. Once under the care of doctors, the relief that swept over her was evident and she told me how much better she felt to know she was being helped. My husband and I did our research and we knew the statistics for her age group and for the severity of her diagnosis…and we hoped for her to respond well to the treatments. Mom underwent countless treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Like many before her, she lost her hair and her appetite and despite her strength throughout the process she was scared and kept telling me she wants 10 more years with her grandchildren. During the first two years or so of treatments she responded well and successfully completed them but it was incredibly difficult to watch her go through it. She was strong and her pain tolerance was high but emotionally she had a difficult time with it. But she was encouraged when her hair grew back and when she could go out again without the disguise of a wig. Then in the fall of 2020 she began to complain of leg pain and it became very difficult for her to get up or move around. She began to walk with a walker for assistance and was initially diagnosed with a pinched nerve. Unbeknownst to her at the time was that her cancer has metastasized to her bones. My parents visited us for Christmas that year and she walked through the door with her walker looking very much in pain after a 4 hour drive. Had we known how much she was truly suffering we never would have allowed her to make that trip. She was in fact walking with an undiagnosed broken hip…a result of her weakened bones. Shortly after their return home she insisted on seeing a doctor again and getting a second opinion and it was then that she was diagnosed with cancer having reached her bones. In January of 2021 she had a partial hip replacement. I remember her telling us of how much better she felt and how she could walk again without pain and felt hopeful for when she wouldn’t need to use a walker anymore. Unfortunately my mother never truly recovered from there. Her leg felt better but her energy was low and she slept more and needed a lot of help. She had my father of course but I knew she needed us and she needed to see her grandchildren when she could so I visited her more frequently. By mid February my mother was still having difficulty standing even with her walker. One day, while my father was outside she fell as she tried to get up, saying that her legs just completely gave out from under her. An ambulance was called after my father tried to get her up and couldn’t because she couldn’t take the pain. During that hospital stay, more scans and more X-rays were done. The last time I saw my mother alive was during that hospital visit. I talked with her and took notes from talks with her doctors and nurses. I remember saying goodbye to her to start my road trip home and I looked back at her through the glass wall of her room as I walked away..she had already fallen asleep in that moment. Within three days of that visit my father called me to tell me that the doctors said her cancer had spread further and had now reached her brain. She had tumors in her brain and there were no more recommendations of treatment other than palliative care. I remember standing outside of my building at work when the doctor asked that I be on the phone as they talked with my father about the recommendation that no more tests or treatment be done. I listened as they tried to get him to understand that she now needed comfort and peace and then he asked me if I agreed…I knew it was the right choice and my only regret is that I wasn’t there with him in that moment other than on the phone. She was to be moved to a hospice later that day and on my way home from work I called her nurses station to see how she was doing. They confirmed that she was no longer awake or talking for the last couple of days. One of her nurses told me that the last thing she had said to them was “Enough” repeatedly. She had fought hard but she had had enough. I packed my bags that night to go see her at the hospice the next day, but I didn’t make it in time. She passed early that next morning with my father at her side and at peace. I know she wanted more time. I know she wanted to watch her grandsons and her granddaughter grow up. I know that she didn’t want to leave my father behind. I know that she was scared of doctors and of cancer but I also know from her own words that she wished she had sought help sooner and she finally acknowledged that she should have gotten regular mammograms. And maybe it would have made a difference…maybe she would be here today. My daughter was named Natalie Victoria after her grandmother and she will know of her grandmother’s incredible strength but she will also know of her fears so that she can hopefully learn from them as I have and live without them.