That weird combination of happy and horrible.

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer.

If you just whispered, “Oh, shiiit,” you’re not the only one with that reaction.

But, that was a few weeks ago. The whole thing turned out to be the best possible scenario – they caught it early, and she won’t need chemo or even radiation. Once she’s healed up from the lumpectomy, we can kind of pretend this whole thing never happened.

Except that it did.

It turns out that I’m the official family Cancer Sherpa. As Cancer Sherpa, I know what stuff means and how things generally work. I’m the one who explained what margins are in terms of removing a tumor. I know things. I’m like a very sick version of Liam Neeson’s “I have a very particular set of skills” character.

The whole thing revived the latent PTSD I have from my mom’s breast cancer. You know, that cancer that I like to pretend never happened, except that it did? The cancer that now, with a mere 16 years of distance, we can all agree was horrific?

It’s a fine line between sharing my experience and telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. I hope my MIL doesn’t mind that I share her diagnosis. And I hope my mom doesn’t mind that I tell you how even now, even after the dust has long since settled, I am still traumatized and terrified by what she went through, and the scary times our family faced.

My mom is a badass. I think I’ve covered this. But it’s still hard to believe that we are living our lives as if we’re normal, everyday people. Sixteen years ago this summer, my mom was pretty sure she wasn’t going to make it to Christmas. The rest of us didn’t want to entertain this possibility, even though it kept knocking at the door.

Mama was given an 80% chance of reoccurrence. She had a double mastectomy with reconstruction. She went into heart failure on the table. Her body rejected some of the transplanted tissue.

Oh, shiiit.

She told me recently that she still can’t believe she went through all that she did. And I opened my big dumb mouth and said, “Well, it’s not like you were just going to lay down and die.”

She could have. But she didn’t, because that’s not who she is. And I’m glad.

She’s said that she knows she’s a bit overzealous when it comes to her new grandbaby. But she explained that she never thought she’d see my brother graduate high school, much less get married or do something totally insane like become a parent. And so, she celebrates.

We’re shell-shocked, if we’re being honest, even 16 years later. But we celebrate.

And so, I’m celebrating for my MIL, and my sweet husband’s family. I will be your Cancer Sherpa, and share what I know only if you really need to know it. Right now, what you need to know is that it’s OK to be upset.

But I highly recommend celebrating.

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  • Reply cookingwithgas August 12, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Having lost too many too young to the big c, I drink in those simple moments of the family I have. Not perfect, but mine. The other big c should be celebrate.

  • Reply Becky August 12, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    A friend from high school lost his little sister last week to breast cancer. She will never see her baby boy grow up, just like my aunt who lost her battle with it didn't get to see her children graduate from high school. I was the only one of my father's four children he got to see graduate from high school because of a fatal heart attack at the age of 44. The age I am now.
    Life is short. Celebrate it every chance you get. Preferably daily.

  • Reply Cassi Renee August 12, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Over the last two years, I've had multiple friends/acquaintances fight (successfully) through breast cancer. It's very scary, and suddenly seems everywhere. I'm glad it was caught so early for your MIL.

    10 or so years ago, my mom had a blood clot go to her lung. And then, on the way to the doctor for a blood test, another one. For the second one, she was already in the car and asked my dad to just put the seat back, and she just got herself through it, and eventually back in the house. Later, I asked her what she was thinking, being so close to dying. She said she was concentrating so hard on remaining alive that she didn't think about dying. It's good to have moms who are badasses!

  • Reply Jan August 12, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    This is wonderful – and how lucky is your family to have you as their gentle guide!

  • Reply Candy Adams August 12, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    We are blessed to have you as our family C Sherpa 🙂

  • Reply Angie August 13, 2014 at 2:38 am

    Just came across Anna Quindlin's A Short Guide to a Happy Life again tonight and thought her perspective might be worth sharing as similar to yours. She faced her mother's cancer at 19 with a different outcome but the same beautiful perspective on life as a gift…

    “Before” and “after” for me was not just before my mother’s illness and after her death. It was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.

    And I went back to school and I looked around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren’t sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I knew that I had undergone a sea change. Because I was never again going to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.

  • Reply Green Girl in Wisconsin August 14, 2014 at 2:10 am

    You do have specific skills, and I bet your family is grateful for them. Your mother's lesson is one I need to take to heart–celebrate more. You never know.

  • Reply J Salemink August 15, 2014 at 2:23 am

    Beautifully written! My mom is a 43 year breast cancer survivor. Every day is a gift. Celebrate!

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