Sunday, October 7, 2012

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Breast cancer ribbons (1)

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it's a time of year that I always pause. My favorite aunt, Agnes Cooper, died of complications from breast cancer when I was 16 years old. Until that point, no one I really knew had ever died. I had all my grandparents, and had never known my great-grandparents. Agnes was not a blood aunt, but she was closer to me than any other adult. She was the person I went to when I had to talk to a grown-up without getting in trouble. Throughout my life, she always treated me like a human being, never like an infant.

I remember spending time during punishments (there were a lot of them, mostly unearned) fantasizing that she was really my mother, and that she had given me up because she knew how much my actual mom needed a child. I was aware it was fantasy, but I clung to it.

When she first got cancer, none of us were truly surprised. She'd been a heavy smoker all her life. But when you're 13 years old, you know that your own family won't die from these things. It's other people who die. And after long and arduous surgeries and chemotherapy and losing all her hair (which she did with good grace), she was told she was in remission.

Life was good. All was as it should be. And then it came back. And she beat it again. And then it really came back. Now, with my own age and with the ministerial training I've had, I can look back and see how it had spread, and how she was sent home to die. She didn't want to die in hospice. She knew the end was very near, and determined not to leave a mess behind. All I saw was that the hospital sent her home, so that meant she was on the mend and would just have to go through more chemo. After all, that's what had happened before.

She didn't get better. She put all her affairs in order, long before the cancer reached her brain. Every piece of jewelry was bagged with a name on it. Every bill was paid, every possession accounted for. We didn't know that until after, of course, when my parents (her executors) went to begin cleaning things out and organizing. They were stunned.

I remember the last time I saw her. We had gone to visit. There was a hospital bed in her bedroom in her apartment. Her black cat, Flower, was refusing to leave her side. She was pretty out of it, and I had thought it was due to medications. I talked with her a bit, then my mother said we had to go.

As I was leaving, she took my hand and she whispered, "I need to say goodbye, hon." I smiled and said not to be so serious, because after all, we were going to be back tomorrow. She kept holding my hand until I kissed her and said okay, and we said a proper goodbye. She died in the early hours of the following morning.

What to look for (2)
Her cancer started in her breasts, and spread to her lymph nodes under her arms, and eventually to her spine and up into her brain. After her death, they did an autopsy to find out what happened, and basically her brain was mush. That's why she was so dopey when we were there. But she was still herself. And she knew she was going.

My aunt was incredibly brave. She was understanding, to a point I can't even imagine. I know that during her own cancer woes, she sat patiently and listened to me gripe about my mother and how awful my life was. She never teased me about anything. She always took what I said seriously, and never made me feel she was bored or thought I was stupid or "just a kid."

I honor my aunt a lot. I say prayers for her. I've written poems about her and for her. As I've become friends to teens, I have kept her lessons in mind. I've always tried to take them seriously, be honest and even blunt, and never lie. I've tried to carry on for them what she did for me. Sometimes I'm better at it than others, but I always keep trying. When I do it well, I feel as if I'm getting a ghostly hug from a woman that taught me more in the few years I knew her than anyone else.

So... it's Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you're high risk or over 40, have your boobs checked. Ask your doctor, or go to the American Cancer Society's website and find a place to get a low cost or free screening done. In Keene, NH, you can get low cost and free screening done at the hospital downtown. Just call for information or email them from their website. Early identification makes all the difference.

While you're waiting for that mammogram, why don't you pause, too. Remember those in your life who've been taken away by breast cancer, or who beat it and are doing well. Say a prayer of thanks. Talk to them on the phone if you can, or go visit.

If you'd like, please share your story in the comments below. Keep those happy and even the painful memories alive.

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(1) Image from Federal Government / Wikimedia Commons
(2) Image from National Institute of Health / Wikimedia Commons
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