37: Keywords to Survival

37: Keywords to Survival

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Mom Knows Best

Keywords to Survival

As a young mother, I thought having four children under the age of four was a challenge. That challenge pales, however, when compared with having two weddings, a mastectomy, and serving as hostess for my husband’s business conference—all in two weeks.

Survival became the keyword, followed in swift order by hurry and secrecy, along with support and humor.

In February 1980, two of our sons announced that they each wanted to be married in early June. They agreed on the first and third Saturdays. One wedding would be in Michigan, the other in Colorado.

Delighted that they had made happy commitments, we chorused, “Wonderful! It’s fine with us.”

“It even works well for the conference,” added my husband. “We can stay in Colorado after the second wedding.”

As president of the American Bankers’ Association, he had major responsibilities in Colorado the third week of June. “I’ll just take two suitcases,” I added, thinking about my responsibilities as his hostess.

All went well until I discovered a small lump in my left breast three days before the first wedding. I hurried to my doctor who hurried me to X ray. From the moment he saw the X ray, hurry became a keyword.

The doctors rushed me into surgery for a biopsy. As I came out from the anesthesia, the wavering lines of a shape formed into the young surgeon who had done the biopsy. Groggy, I barely comprehended his words. “Remove the breast tomorrow.” I tried to shout, but it was just a whisper. “No! Not now! The weddings!”

The older doctor, a friend, explained the percentages of survival based on treatment, and how long it took to recover. Everyone hastened to tell me what I must do immediately.

Finally, I announced in what I hoped was a normal voice, “This is Thursday. I will not ruin the wedding. I will come home Sunday and you can operate on Monday.”

Secrecy was added to the keyword list. Had I known my daughter-in-law as well then as I do now, I might have told her. But at the time, I would not announce such frightening news to her in the midst of such joy.

Although our son, the groom-to-be, was very worried, my husband and I swore him to secrecy. “Let’s wait until after the celebration,” we said. Then we drove to Michigan, held the rehearsal dinner, cried and smiled during the wedding and danced at the reception. Our insistence on leaving at dawn the next day, missing the special breakfast, caused some raised eyebrows, but it could not be helped.

I went to the hospital that evening, had surgery the following morning and awoke minus a breast—but free from cancer. No chemotherapy or radiation required.

Prayers and thanksgiving were very important to us at this time, but hurry became vital again. Rapid recovery was essential. The next wedding was in twelve days, and we had to drive to Colorado.

Support joined the keyword list. Friends and family supported me vigorously. They brought food and sent get well cards. The just-married couple called from their honeymoon in Florida to thank us for not spoiling their wedding. The about-to-be-married couple in Colorado offered to change the date. But the conference could not be canceled. All had to proceed as planned.

With more prayers, thanks and all the fine support, I did begin the recovery process quickly. But other worries arose that, in retrospect, now seem trivial. How would I look? Unable to wear a prosthesis immediately, I worried about my appearance at this next wedding. How could I look like a mother of the groom? My dress would not fit properly.

Again, support. A friend who’d had a mastectomy the year before showed me how she’d used cotton and Kleenex to fill out and look balanced during the time before she could start wearing her prosthesis.

It is easy now to look back and laugh at this and the other little strategies we devised, but at the time, conquering each problem caused pain and seemed traumatic. I had not had time to grieve about my loss in private before events pressed me into the public eye at a major occasion of my life: our second son’s marriage.

However, slowly, humor began to help us cope. My left arm could not reach my back. The first time my husband awkwardly worked at the fastener of my brassiere, we exploded with laughter as he commented, “Somehow, this isn’t the same as it used to be.” Pulling up my panty hose initially caused frustration then giggles then snorts of laughter as I squirmed and he tugged.

In Colorado, the keyword from my family continued to be support, shown by their encouragement. While no one expressed pity, all of them built up my confidence. I could handle this happy occasion. A hug here, a pat and a smile, a chair conveniently placed nearby relieved fatigue and let me know how much someone cared. Later, I learned they’d promised each other not to pity me.

“We promised to be strong, so you would have to be,” one of them told me years later.

The bride glowed with joy and gratitude at not having to change plans. The second son and his friends took over the rehearsal dinner, a relaxed picnic at which I could be a happy guest. I marched up the church aisle proudly, knowing that my dress hung appropriately. My husband and I shared the joy of this second wedding. Our dancing at the reception was limited, but I managed a dance with the groom and another with my husband. No one paid attention to my left arm hanging limply at my side. We all had more fun than I had thought possible.

Despite friends urging me to skip the conference, where my hostess duties might be very tiring, I was determined to go. By then, my husband had become an expert at brassiere fastening and helping with panty hose. I was adept at padding appropriately. And humor had become a habitual keyword. To this day, I giggle when I squirm my way into a pair of panty hose. A banker’s wife with whom I had become acquainted over the years offered to come to our hotel room any time I needed assistance with my hair. When conference duties kept my husband too busy to help me, she arrived energetically to fasten a pearl necklace, put in my pierced earrings or wash my hair. We became close friends, sharing stories of our children and of our fears and dreams. She taught me to relax with breathing techniques and to gain strength through visualization exercises. Our times together helped me survive and enjoy the conference. Most important, she helped me start the necessary grieving process so that I would eventually feel whole again. By the end of the conference, despite the hurry and emotion, I was beginning to put my mastectomy into perspective.

The words, from survival to hurry, from secrecy to support, stand out in my memory of those demanding weeks. Family and friends, prayers and thanksgiving, along with a growing sense of humor helped me resolve fears and grief. Recognizing and using keywords made survival a reality.

~Peg Sherry
Chicken Soup to Inspire a Woman’s Soul

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