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My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 12, 2005, two days before my thirteenth birthday. My parents divorced in September of 2005 and my grandmother passed away from esophageal cancer that November. Mom retired from her job and bought her own business in a new town, fulfilling her lifelong dream of owning her own women’s clothing store. This meant that we were moving to this new town the summer before my freshman year of high school.
And my sister, who was the only normal thing in my life at that point, was leaving for college.
2005 five was the biggest blessing of my life. And 13 is not an unlucky number.
I choose not to tell too many people my story not because it is some dark, dramatic time in my life that I don’t like to talk about, but because it isn’t what is most important about me or my family. It doesn’t define us, and I don’t want what happened five years ago to be the only thing that people know us for. I like to refer to us as a “functional dysfunctional family,” meaning that yes, my parents are divorced, but they get along better now than they did when they were married; my mom owns the business she always dreamed of; my dad teaches at my high school helping emotionally disturbed children find the good in life; my sister is getting her PhD in molecular carcinogenesis; and I go to college in Boston just one block away from where Benjamin Franklin’s parents are buried. This is what makes us great- that through it all, my family hasn’t once taken on a defeatist attitude. And this is what I want people to know about us. Cancer was our blessing because we would not be where we are without it.
Cancer is taboo. Divorce is taboo. But I want to talk about it because most people don’t. It’s one of the scariest things life can throw at you, but only the strongest of people are blessed with it. Once you enter the “Cancer World” you meet the most amazing people who know what it’s like to fight. They know what it’s like to know that chemotherapy might not work, that the cancer might come back in a month or in ten years, that they will wake up in the morning with hair left on the pillow, and go to sleep at night with nothing but the black shadow of cancer growing inside them. And yet they fight anyway.
My mom has always taught me that there isn’t anything I couldn’t do. Whenever I question my ability to do something she says, “Who told you you couldn’t?” And I used to roll my eyes and think it was just one of those things mothers say to prove their kids wrong. But now that I think about it, while people may doubt me sometimes, the only person that can decide what my abilities are is me. No one told my mom that she wouldn’t survive chemotherapy or lose the fight to cancer. No one ever told her she wasn’t strong enough or couldn’t do it, because that decision was hers to make and no one else’s. That is what makes a survivor- fighting like you never thought possible because no one told you you couldn’t.
People assume that life ends when a diagnosis is made, or that kids will be forever scarred and damaged if their parents divorce. These things are horrible and difficult and they truly do test the strength of a person, but I am proof that these assumptions are merely words said by people who have never been lucky enough to go through it all. And I am telling you right now that you can survive anything that is thrown at you or your mother or your family. And if you ever have any doubt in your mind, because you will sometimes, just ask yourself, “Who told me I couldn’t?”