It was May 11th – my 15th birthday. My brother and I were outside enjoying the warm day, the smell of fresh cut grass and the faint scent of honeysuckle floating through the air. Suddenly my mom’s voice rang out harshly, calling us to come into the house. She sounded upset, so we ran to the house wondering what we’d done to get in trouble.
When we got in the house, our parents looked grim. They told us to sit down – they had something difficult to tell us. My mom had breast cancer, an aggressive, fast growing type of breast cancer. I was in shock. My mom was only 35 years old and she had cancer.
That evening, I had to perform in a play at school. My dad drove me to school to get ready for the play and we talked about the future. What was going to happen to my mom? To my family?
I walked into the performing arts center that evening and as I was greeted by my friends, I broke down crying, sharing the devastating news with my friends. There was strength in those friendships. My friends held me as I cried and helped me redo my stage makeup again and again throughout the night as I struggled to pull it together to perform in front of hundreds of people.
I’ll never forget one of my best friends, Chad, holding me while I cried that night. He worked so hard to make me smile. To let me know things would be okay. He led me over to the piano in one of the backstage rooms, sat me down on the bench beside him, and played and sang “Piano Man,” one of my favorite songs. To this day, I still cry a bit when I hear Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” come on the radio.
That night when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I listened to music and wondered how life was going to change. Was my mom going to be there when I graduated? Would she still be with me when I walked down the aisle and got married? Would she ever hold her grandchildren? Would I end up with cancer, too? The questions swirled through my mind the entire night until the faint light of dawn crept through my window.
I made it through that first night after finding out my mom had cancer. But there were harder days coming. A few weeks later my mom had a lumpectomy and a lymph node dissection. She came home with a drain under her arm that needed regular care. My dad, he withdrew during that time. He completely checked out. He couldn’t handle the cancer – couldn’t handle dealing with the care my mom needed as she recovered.
So at 15, I became my mom’s caregiver and her confidant. I cleaned her lymph node drain and changed dressings after she came home from surgery. I took care of her when she was so sick and burnt from radiation treatments. When she was depressed with the way her recovery was going, I listened to her. When she started thinking about committing suicide because her depression was so bad, I would sit with her and talk to her until she was okay.
Meanwhile, I was trying to take care of my little brother and help him cope with the scariness of mom having cancer. He was only 12, and he was scared. I tried to reassure him that mom was going to be okay, that we’d all get through this time as a family. And we did. My mom beat breast cancer, and she’s been cancer free for more than 20 years now.
More than 20 years after that life-changing 15th birthday, the memories of the day we found out my mom had cancer are still vivid. I remember the days of caring for her, physically and emotionally. It was hard for a 15 year old girl. They were tough days, but those days made me strong.
I’d wanted to work in the medical field since I was tiny, and those days of caring for my mom as she went through cancer surgery and treatment only made me surer that the medical field was for me. There was beauty to be found in caring for others. I found that human touch and empathy was as important for my mom’s recovery and wellbeing as the cancer treatment. Caring for the body and the spirit – that’s what I wanted to do.
Kristen is a passionate writer, teacher, and mother to a wonderful son. Currently volunteering at Freedom Care, a company that helps with New York’s CDPAP program. She finds great joy in being able to share her experiences of being a caregiver with others. When free time presents itself, you can find her tackling her lifelong goal of learning the piano!