Written by Angela Palo, Design + Content Specialist, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Cancer affects the lives of many, whether they be the ones who have been diagnosed or those who have family and/or friends with the disease.
In 2013, I was returning an empty glass to the kitchen when my mum turned to me and, out of the blue, said what is to this day the saddest thing I’ve ever heard her say, something she probably doesn’t even remember.
“You know what one of the worst things is about this whole thing? That I might never see you get married.”
At the age of 20, she had a cyst in her breast removed. It was benign and after that operation, all was well. During a routine mammogram years and years later, doctors found a small lump and a few days later, the phone rang asking her to go to Royal North Shore Hospital to undergo tests including another mammogram. It was a few days later, when she went back to get the results by herself, that she was officially diagnosed with cancer.
From then, she was asked to speak to her GP who would then refer her to a surgeon. My dad and brothers couldn’t take time off work, so it was up to me to accompany her to the appointment. At this point, she hadn’t confirmed her diagnosis with my brothers and me, so I was under the impression that we were just going there for more tests, so you can imagine my shock when the conversation went straight to the point.
You know that scene in movies where the doctor says those dreaded words telling you your results? That moment was exactly like that.
“Your mum has cancer…” the doctor said as if I was already aware.
My heart sank.
Nothing will ever quite prepare you for receiving bad news of any form. I think I zoned out for a minute but realised that at that time, I needed to be the calm one to be able to absorb the information and plan of attack. If I was feeling shocked, I could only imagine how she was feeling. So I took a deep breath, forced my tears back and got on with the rest of the appointment.
Mum and I in one of the very few times she wore a wig.
The doctor said some dates that she could be booked in for surgery and my mum, being the person that she is and even in such a vulnerable state, still didn’t want to take the time to think of herself.
“No, I can’t do that date, that’s before your graduation, which I’m not missing so we’ll have to do it after.”
Let’s just say that no, she had no say in this. We (the doctor and I) decided that she was going to get that thing taken out as soon as possible and if she was well enough to attend my graduation then great, if not, no big deal. FYI, she did make it, I actually think it would’ve taken the end of the world for her not to attend.
The next few months were really a blur – surgery, setting up the plans for chemotherapy and radiation, and then actually going through them. With this came the weakness after the chemo and radiation sessions and the expected hair loss. As my mum’s hair showed signs of falling out, she asked for it to be shaved, which my brother Emmanuel took the responsibility of doing. It wasn’t until later on that my mum found out that after shaving her hair off, my brother had called his now wife and cried. Another very sad moment I’ll never forget was when my then 2-year-old niece saw her grandmother without hair for the first time, ran away and hid behind a door, only to pop her head out with caution. I can’t even imagine how that would’ve felt.
My niece slowly got used to Mum’s hair.
The whole journey was a rollercoaster, not just for my mum, but also for our family. I write this from the perspective of someone who could only watch and offer as much support as she could, without knowing what it felt like to be the one living through it. That day in 2013, when she said that line to me, I acted cool and told her not to say things like that. I swallowed back tears, texted my best friend, went over to her apartment where I cried and she did too.
Me with my parents and two brothers.
There’s no easy way to deal with cancer, every now and then the emotions find you. As someone who has seen a loved one go through it, all I’m aiming for is to be able to help raise awareness in any way I can, no matter how small.
I have black hair that I don’t colour, which grows quickly and thick, so when my mum went through her journey, I decided that I would grow my hair to donate it. There are more people out there that need it. The first time I donated in April 2015, I cut off 28cm. Two weeks ago, I took the scissors once more, cutting off 32cm.
Hair donation time!
My mum’s journey with breast cancer is what encouraged me to chop my hair off and donate it in the first place. Now I do it for those who have succumbed to it, for those who have survived it, for those who are battling it and for those who may have to fight it.
April 2018 will mark her 5th year being cancer free, so she’s definitely winning at life.
Medibank’s Health Concierge program is a personalised service which aims to help Medibank members with specific health needs, when they need it most – such as when preparing for, or recovering from, a hospital stay or treatment. Thousands of members have already benefited from the program, including those who suffer from breast cancer. For more information about a career within our Health Concierge team, click here.