When you are sitting in an oncology unit, often times you are asked a long list of health related questions.
“Do you currently smoke?”
“Do you have liver disease?
“How many drinks do you consume per week on average?”
All of these type questions I can rattle off my responses just fine. Until we get to my family history of health related issues.
“Has anyone else in your family had cancer?”
“Can you tell me who, what kind of cancer, and how old they were at the time of diagnosis?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“My mother, breast, 41”
“Is she alive today?”
“Yes. My aunt. breast cancer, but I actually don’t know her age of diagnosis off hand. She also eventually had a reoccurrence.”
“That’s okay. Maternal or paternal?”
“Yes, my mom’s other sister. Breast and eventually ovarian. Not sure of the exact age either.”
And this is where I want to call it quits, run out of the room saying “F*ck this noise”, but instead with a lump in my throat, I say, “No, deceased.”
How am I supposed to just say this nonchalantly? Verbalizing my family tree of cancer reality and the loss of one of my all time favorite people to ever walk the face of this earth feels really harsh and really cold. It’s like I can’t be me and I need to turn on my robot-self, when I really want to say, “I’ve sat in this chair 90 f*cking times. Don’t you numbnuts already have this information on a cloud somewhere? Or do you enjoy listening to me rattle off my family cancer tree?” (Can you tell I’m bitter that I’ve had to sit in an oncology unit since I was 20?).
Each time I discuss my auntie Katie passing in the doctor office setting I feel like I’m truly about to shut down. My aunt was and always will be my hero. You see when you have to discuss my aunt battling cancer for 11 years, a cancer patient is not the way I would ever describe her. She was the glue, the force of gravity in the room. The voice of reason. The person to tell me like it is with a warm smile and supportive embrace. It’s that smile I see when I mention my aunt. It’s that laugh and her Boston accent that didn’t quite fade despite living on the West Coast for years. It’s the cards that arrived whenever I needed to be reminded someone genuinely cares. It’s the shopping trips. The phone calls until my ear was burning from the heat of the phone.
When my aunt died in 2005, a piece of me died too. She was my hope, my strength and my voice when I just couldn’t find the words. She taught me how to care, how to always express love and how to have grace. She taught me how to shop, how to always eat cake and to celebrate the small victories.
It’s Katie I smile to when things are going to be okay. It’s Katie I cry to when I’m unsure. She wasn’t perfect. She isn’t God. But I often find myself saying “What would AK do?”
In 2005, I was a sophomore in college. I was 19 when she passed away. I was the saddest version of myself. And I found myself in an apathetic, superficial environment trying to properly grieve. I failed miserably. I would cry in the shower stalls of my dorm room until I began to sob. It was the only time I was alone among 9 other roommates. And Thursday through Sunday I would drink uncomfortable amounts of alcohol. I made bad choices and hated the person I would become without the person I so desperately loved and needed in my life. Just one more conversation. One more hug. One more visit. This can’t forever be reality.
I wasn’t a good person. I was certainly not the person I wanted to be. It got dark and then it got darker. The Summer of 2006, I found out I had melanoma when I had a cosmetic surgeon remove a mole on my leg. I eventually had further surgeries to clear a margin and then have my lymph nodes removed to see if the cancer had spread further. It did not spread. Again, I’m one of the lucky ones.
It was Katie I prayed to in the hospital. Why is the one person that would totally understand all of this, gone? Just one more conversation. Just one more hug. Just one more visit.
That fall I returned to school junior year. My roommates didn’t want to live with me senior year. I wasn’t fun anymore. I wasn’t the same girl I was freshman year. I was negative and hard to be around. And they were right. I so badly needed to be told this version, this dark version was not a good friend or an ideal roommate.
At the time, I was deeply hurt. I wondered why they couldn’t see my loss. I was ashamed and really embarrassed of the person looking back at me in the mirror. So second semester I packed my bags and studied for 121 days in Florence, Italy.
I could write an entire novel about how I had my own little renaissance in Florence. In fact, while I studied in Italy it was the first time in my life I wrote every single day. I arrived in Rome in disbelief. I made the choice to pack up and make a change. And after three nights in Rome, I had orientation in a little Tuscan city called Siena. A week later, after getting acclimated I ran through the medieval city listening to “Somewhere only we know” by Keene on my first iPod. I stopped looking out over the medieval walls. And I began to pray out loud like a mad woman. Let me preface by saying I’m not really the religious type, but this was my “come to Jesus moment”.
“Please, Please help me change. I don’t want to be sad and sh*tty. I want her to be proud of me again. Please.” The tears were undeniable.
And for the first time, during a very dark time, I felt alive again. Siena made me realize not to let life pass me by. Katie would want me to live, to truly live. Saint Catherine of Siena heard my prayers that day.
I swear, Katie must have winked from Heaven. I went back to my hotel and wrote in my journal, “If I’m ever fortunate enough to have a daughter, I hope I’m smart enough to name her Siena. I’ve never felt so alive as I do today.”
Everything happened for a reason. Italy was the BEST time of my life. And senior year I went on to live with a great group of girls and grew a best friend that I can’t imagine living my life without.
So you see when someone asks about my family cancer tree and we ultimately have a discussion about losing the most influential person in my life, I find it unbearable to say “deceased” and move on.
Katie was not the one to sacrifice herself so the rest of us could plead ignorance. I needed in the deepest areas of my soul to do everything I could to muster up courage. I decided to no longer deny the family cancer tree and get tested for BRCA1. I needed to do what I could to know my own risk.