After I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2009, one of my first thoughts was, ”How could I possibly tell my 86 year-old father that I had breast cancer, when a few short months before he lost his wife of over 50 years?”
My mother passed away in November 2008 after an extended illness with laryngeal cancer. I felt very guilty and anxious about having to share this news with him. I did not want to add to his burden, and yet, I knew I would ultimately need his love and support. Even at 46 years old, I was still his baby, his youngest child, and I could not bear to keep this a secret for very long. I just kept thinking, “This is going to break his heart.”
During this time, I, too, was filled with a deep sadness about losing my mom. We were always extremely close. Being one of her primary caregivers during her illness brought us even closer. I missed my mom now more than ever. She would have known exactly what to do. Her first instinct would be to protect me. Now I felt like not only did I have no one to do that for me, but I would also need to protect my dad.In my mind, I thought I would have to do this alone. Through this experience, I learned a great lesson: No matter how well you know someone or how close you may be to them, they can still surprise you when you least expect it.
To complicate matters, my father is very hard of hearing and had not yet been fitted with hearing aids. Since this was a discussion during which I would be speaking very loudly, the conversation needed to be done in person. I went his house after work so I could tell him in private. I sat on the edge of his bed while he was sitting in the rocking chair and spoke to him at the top of my lungs: “I need to let you know, dad, that I have BREAST CANCER.”
I know I was sobbing even while I was yelling. I had held this in for a few days and now I was free to cry. I was terribly sad and felt responsible for bringing additional pain to my family at a time when they were trying to heal from my mom’s death. But, we don’t get to choose when we have a cancer diagnosis. Through my tears, I heard my dad say, “This will be ok, we will get through this and we will do whatever we need to do.” I don’t think I fully believed him—at the time.
My diagnosis threw my dad into action. It distracted him, took him away from his grief and gave him a purpose, someone to help. I know he wanted to step in for my mom and to protect me and do whatever was necessary and whatever he could.
He insisted on coming to the oncologist’s appointment with me and my sister. He sat in the waiting room and read his newspaper. The surgeon informed us of the recommended course of treatment: a lumpectomy, 4 rounds of chemotherapy—during which I also began taking trastuzumab (Herceptin) for a year—radiation and 5 years of tamoxifen. I was not at all prepared to hear the word “chemotherapy” as part of my treatment plan, and I started to cry. The surgeon quickly handed me a box of tissues. I heard my sister asking about mastectomy and the surgeon talking about breast conservation. Everything became a blur, and I just shut down.
My sister and I left the surgeon’s office and walked down the long hallway to the waiting room. I saw my dad sitting there, and the feelings of dread immediately returned. Once outside, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we walked through some of the hospital gardens which were just beginning to bloom. This time my sister did the talking, as I was still in shock and could not speak.
“Dad, Lynn will need chemo,” she said.
I am not sure if my dad did not hear correctly or could not process the information. I remember him asking my sister quite a few times, “Really, are you sure she needs chemo?” Maybe if he kept asking the question, the answer would somehow change; that was my hope as well.
My father insisted on coming to every chemo treatment. I would recline in the infusion chair and nod in and out of sleep, and when I opened my eyes I’d see him reading the newspaper or napping next to me. It brought me a great deal of comfort to see his face and know this was where he wanted to be, right by my side.
Having a conversation was another story. Our discussions were short and loud. Since I was on a very heavy treatment cocktail regime and exhausted, more often than not, we just sat there silently supporting one another.
One of my greatest pleasures during treatment was meeting my dad for lunch. It was special to me—just me and my dad. I was a few months into my chemo treatments and had no appetite, but I knew it was important that I at least try to eat. I wore a fashionable scarf on my head, one from my mother’s collection.
Wearing her scarf on my bald head made me connect with my mom. Someone once told me that our sense of smell is one of our strongest senses and can bring back 90 percent of a memory. I would often take the scarf and put it up to my nose and breathe in deeply. It still smelled like her. This made me feel calm and remember the love we shared.
One day, while having lunch with my dad, I was suddenly overtaken by an extreme hot flash. Always prepared, I had my pretty fan at the ready to cool me. However, my fan and a large glass of water were just not doing the trick. I looked at my dad, apologized and told him I needed to take off my scarf. He told me he did not care. I did not want to upset him by seeing me without hair, but slowly I removed my scarf. I sat there exposed. I looked at him and apologized once again about the way I looked, and that he had to see me this way. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “All I see is your beautiful face.” It took me a few moments to really soak in those words. Those few kind words filled my heart with joy. It was in that moment that I knew everything would be ok, my dad was ok, I was ok.
Those words made me feel like a beautiful person inside and out. It was as if he looked into my soul, my being, my essence, and loved and accepted me, cancer and all. It became clear to me that I was the one judging myself, not him. It was simple, he just wanted to love me, take care of me, and be my dad. All along I thought I had to be strong for my dad, but welcoming and accepting his love and support was the greatest healing gift that I could give to both of us.
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