Here is a snippet of how a moment can change your entire life especially when we allow fear to take control.
It was a cold December morning when I got the call. My sister, Sarah, was concerned because our mom had called off work sick. Again. It had been happening over and over for the last couple months. She had been to the doctor’s office with complaints of trouble breathing and pain in her back. The diagnosis was bronchitis and she was given an antibiotic, but even after weeks of treatment, she wasn’t getting any better.
That morning, enough was enough. I promised Sarah that I would go and check on mom after running all my after school pickups and getting the kids dinner. I checked in on her throughout the day via phone, often waking her from several naps. Keeping my word, I went to her house that evening, fully unprepared for what I would find.
As I walked up the stairs to the living room, I could hear mom talking softly on the phone with her brother. She sounded weak. It was not the voice of the strong, independent woman that raised me, but rather a frail, defeated sound, muffled with tears. When I turned the corner, my eyes focused on the pale, disheveled woman curled up on the sofa. She could barely hold the phone and had it propped up to her ear with a pillow. The white, fluffy blanket she had wrapped around her was disgustingly similar in shade to her own skin.
The site of her hit me hard. I had to fight to stay on my feet. I pulled myself together enough to walk over and sit with her. Running my fingers through her hair, our roles reversed. I was now the mommy and she was the child. I told her that I couldn’t stand to see her like that. We needed to go to the emergency room immediately. Something was desperately wrong and I knew in my heart that there was no time to waste.
Of course, she protested. She was too tired, too weak, didn’t feel like getting in the car. I took a deep breath and walked into the bathroom, bracing myself on the vanity and staring at myself in the mirror with tears running down my cheeks. Was I overreacting? I didn’t think so. I had never seen anyone look that sick and weak. I took a deep breath, splashed some cold water on my face and went back to the living room.
Boldly, I told mom we were going to the hospital. She looked at me with an “are you telling me what to do?” furrow in her brow, but she was too exhausted to argue. Slowly she got up off the couch and went to pack a bag. I couldn’t figure out why she was packing and wondered if she knew something she wasn’t telling me, but I silently watched her. When she was finished, I helped her put on her coat and shoes and held her around her waist to lift her into the car. Letting out a sigh as I closed the door, I squeezed my eyes tight to keep the tears from falling and climbed into the driver’s seat.
We weren’t even half way down her long driveway before she told me that she thought she had breast cancer. She had a mass on her right breast that was quickly growing. The words cut through me. I felt myself catch my breath. My fingers starting to go numb from the grip I had on the steering wheel. She continued with the fact that she had suspected it for over a year. A barrage of excuses followed as to why she never told anyone or had sought treatment. She started explaining all of her final wishes, how I was to approach it with the family and what needed to be done financially.
I stopped her. I couldn’t hold back the sobs any longer, nor could I hear her talk about her own death. She made me promise not to tell anyone until we talked to a doctor and had confirmation on her own diagnosis. By the time we arrived at the hospital, I was sick to my stomach. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Fear was gripping me. I knew I had to pull it together and be strong. I knew she needed me.
The next few hours were a whirlwind of testing and imaging. Mom pretty much slept through the whole thing. Unburdening herself of her secret had released all the anxiety she was carrying. I was left to talk to the doctors and nurses. While she slept, I told the nurse that I needed to go and call my husband. I grabbed my jacket and walked out of the emergency room, passing by a computer monitor with Putnam, Suzanne written across the top, my mother. I stopped in my tracks, staring at the screen, the buzz of the ER flurrying behind me in a blur. There it was in black and white. A softball sized tumor, clear as day. Even with no radiology training, I could see it and it was devastating.
She was admitted to the hospital that night. No cots were available so I slept on the floor of her room. The oncologist came by the next morning, a sweet older man full of compassion and grace. He put his hand on my shoulder in comfort as we talked. It was not good news. Even with treatment, he estimated mom had about 3 weeks to live.
Nine years and three months after that day, at the age of 61, she died. In that near decade, she spent her time advocating for early detection. She realized her mistake, but it was too late. Her fear at her own discovery paralyzed her rational thinking. She was going to miss so much of her life. Watching her grandchildren grow up, get married and have babies of their own. She missed graduations and parties, weddings and many other moments. She knew her fate and tried her hardest to make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else. In those nine years, she spoke at events, cried and comforted others diagnosed, and soaked up every ounce of life she could.
Early detection saves lives. It was Suzanne Putnam’s mission to spread that as far and wide as she could. Even when she was completely wiped out from chemo, she would explain to others that it was worth it. Losing her hair meant the drugs were working. Positivity was the only mindset she would allow.
Now, every month, while I’m doing my own self check, I think of her. Every year when I go for my mammogram, I whisper “this is for you mama”. I learned that fear is no excuse. It’s the most important lesson she ever taught me. You are worth the fight. Early detection saves lives. Do it for you.
Here is a resource to show you how to self check!