Breast Cancer Rosary
In keeping with the theme of Addoway's new cause and with October being breast cancer awareness month, I have decided to write about my family's connection with breast cancer.
I was young the first time I can remember hearing about breast cancer. Not sure how old, but young. I know it was not when the incident happened, though. My uncle, my mom's brother, lost his first wife to breast cancer. She went through all the latest treatments including surgery. The doctors thought they had gotten it all. They found out they were wrong. The cancer spread to her brain. My uncle lost the woman he loved. That was the early to mid 1970s; I believe, it was about 1973 or 74.
In mid 1999, my uncle, once again, had to deal with this terrible disease. He called Mom to tell her we needed to try to go to Rhode Island to visit her mom, as she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Grandma had decided she did not want to treat it. Mom and I, along with my younger brother and his girlfriend at the time, drove to Rhode Island to see Grandma in September 1999. It was just before her birthday, October 9th. The doctors were keeping her on morphine to kill the pain, but it was making her sleep a lot, as well as a little incoherent. My uncle had asked them not to give her as much; so, she would know we were there.
When we arrived at the nursing home, we were able to visit with and talk to Grandma. Knowing the doctor had lessened her pain medication while we were there, we asked her how she was feeling and if she wanted the medication. She said no. She said it made her tired, and she wanted to be awake to visit with us. She wanted only one thing... to live to see her next birthday, which, again, was not that far off. We tried to convince her to hang on for a couple more months; so, she could see the turn of the century, to see the year 2000. She was so close, but she was not interested. She said she had lived a long life, and she missed Grandpa. He had passed in 1985 after living for well over 20 years with paralysis of his right side and loss of speech due to a severe stroke he suffered in the very early 1960s.
We stayed only a few days; so, Mom could spend some time with her mom. We had a good visit with her brother, as well. Then, we came back to Texas. It was hard to leave her, knowing we would not see her alive again.
On October 19, 1999, we got the call from my uncle, Grandma had passed away. She made her birthday... she made it to 90 years old. Dad went with Mom this time, by air, to attend the funeral. For those of you who do not know what an Italian funeral is like, it is a bunch of people gathered around. Lots of people you either haven't seen in forever, don't recognize anymore or flat out don't know, but they are related through your mother's father's brother's cousin's daughter's husband...or something like that! There is a rosary, a wake, lots of crying and food. Lots of food. I remember my great aunt's funeral. After which, we went to my her house, where my cousin, her son, still lived. I, of course knew no one, as I was not raised with them, being the Air Force brat. But, there was food. Unbelievable amounts of food!
The doctors have said, if you live long enough, and nothing else gets you, cancer will eventually get to you. I suppose that's true.
In the spring of 2003, I was laid off from yet another job. Although, at the time, I did not see it; it was not a bad thing. As it turned out, just about my birthday in August, I got a very unwanted birthday gift. My little buddy, Gizmo "Gizzy" Todd, was diagnosed with cancer. He's the little Maine Coon mix cat most of you know as my avatar around the Internet. He is me... you can see him in my paws4critters store. His cancer was in his saliva glands. While I spent the time not working, taking care of him, I realized, if I had my job, I would not be able to care for him the way I did. He peacefully passed away in my arms one week to the day before Thanksgiving 2003 at the age of 16 1/2 years old.
Soon afterwards, in December of 2003, Mom called me into the bathroom with her. She told me she noticed something different about her breast. She asked me to look at it. Being the "child", even though an adult, it is still an awkward situation. There was definitely something wrong. Her breast looked like, as they like to describe it, an orange peel. No simple lump. It had only been 4 years since her mom passed away from breast cancer; so, needless to say, it was on our minds. The doctors told us we shouldn't have to worry about it because Mom's mom, Grandma, got it so late in life. Wrong!
Mom, fearful, wanted to wait until her next appointment, which I believe was in January 2004, and she did. Her doctor agreed it was very suspicious, but said it could also be an infection. He gave her some antibiotics and scheduled her for a mammogram appointment in Dallas at the Dallas VA Medical Center.
Well, the antibiotics didn't work... no kidding.
Then came good ol' government health care at your service. The Dallas VA called to reschedule the appointment. Why? The mammogram machine was broken. Broken? She'd have to wait until they got it fixed. Are they kidding? No, they were not. I asked her if they could set up something outside the VA Medical center. No, they could not. What? So, she had to wait.
Her rescheduled appointment came... rescheduled again... they still didn't have the mammogram machine fixed. Still waiting. Being Mom is Dad's dependant, we asked what they do if a female retiree needed a mammogram. To which they replied, she'd have to wait, but they explained they don't get a lot of women with women issues there. Oh, well, that made it all the better. What?!
Finally, I believe, it was the end of February or beginning of March of 2004, they were able to get their mammogram machine fixed, and Mom got her mammogram. The mammogram sort of confirmed what we already knew, but had to wait to find out. I think they said it showed as some sort of mass, but not a lump.
Mom had inflammatory breast cancer... one of the worst kinds, they said. Worst kinds? How many kinds are there? When I was in school, they just told us to do breast exams and feel for lumps... what do you mean there are different kinds? I think they should tell you these things. They tell you everything else in school that you really don't need to know.
So, what's inflammatory breast cancer? Well, for starters, THERE IS NO LUMP. You can feel for one all day long, get all the mammograms you want... it ain't gonna show! While other breast cancers can start as a small lump and low on the scale of how they measure cancer, inflammatory breast cancer ALWAYS starts at stage 3b. Yep, that's right before stage 4... that's the last stage. The stages determine how far along you are. Stage 3b is named such, I think, because... as children, we used to play hide-n-seek. When you count to ten, you always count 9, 9 1/4, 9 1/2, 9 3/4, 10! So, I figure cancer stages are the same way. They can't just go from 3 to 4; so, they have 3b. It just sounds better. Other than that, 3b means it spread to some lymphnodes, whereas, 4 means it has spread to other organs.
The Dallas VA Medical Center cancer folks set up a treatment plan. We were travelling 200+ miles round trip for every chemo treatment. Long days, short nights. I think the car just learned the way through all the highway construction, because what would a big city like Dallas be without road construction? And, of course, I think we slept through most of the trips. Seriously, we were that tired. It's a wonder we made it there an back.
When the chemo treatments were done, which took many, many weeks and hours of each day, they scheduled surgery to remove the breast and some lymphnodes. September 2004.
We had to be at the Dallas VA Medical Center early... way too early... like 5 in the morning early. We left the house at about 3am. Amazing, you can actually get a good handicapped parking spot at the VA Medical Center when it's too early for chickens to be up!
I went with Mom, as Dad had to work. He was always afraid to take time off because attendence records played a role in layoffs. He refused to join the union; so, his job was even more in jeopardy.
Mom and I went in and waited... both tired because of the early time and the long drive.... and both very nervous. To make matters worse, they come to you with paperwork to sign... if anything happens during surgery, like, you die, you agree it was an accident and stuff happens and you won't sue. Yep, whatever, gotta sign it or they won't do the surgery.
Around 10 or 11am, they came to get Mom to bring her up to the surgery area. I was left in the waiting area.
By this time, I was already making breast cancer rosaries. I had brought all my stuff to make rosaries while I waited. I thought it would be a good way to pass the time.
I started making rosaries at such a rate of speed out of nervousness I was almost shaking while doing it. After using all the beads, crucifixes and center pieces I had brought with me, I probably had about 20 or so rosaries made. Needless to say, several hours had passed... OK, a lot of hours had passed.
The waiting area I was in closed at 5pm. I know this because they sent someone to come get me and tell me I had to wait in a different waiting area. What? I was told it was to be a few hours, but come on, they took her at 10 or 11am. They ushered me to another waiting area upstairs in an area they deemed the "chapel area". They told me I could use the "chapel" if I wanted to. Why? Do I need to?
The "chapel"... well, I wouldn't have described it that way. I went inside... it was like walking into a black hole! It was void of anything I, a Catholic, know a chapel to be. It had an eerie emptiness to it. A feeling I had never felt before. It felt creepy. It was in the round. It had benches or chairs; I really can't remember now. One thing, however, was missing... Jesus. No pictures of Him. No crucifix. Not even a simple cross. Nothing. It felt sooo empty. Who or what was I suppose to pray to in an empty, hollow void. It could easily have been a skit from the Twilight Zone. Needless to say, I exited their "chapel" as quickly as I could.
Dad & my older brother called after they got off work to see how Mom was doing. I, frantic, told them I didn't know. No one had been out to talk to me yet... it was now about 5 or 6pm. It would be another 2 to 2 1/2 hours before they were able to get there because of Dallas rush hour traffic. My older brother drove, though; so, that would make up a lot of time. He knows how to work the traffic.
Meantime, one of the "team" came to tell me how things were going... finally. He said, they were having a little trouble getting Mom to wake up, but she was awake now. They wanted to give her more time to wake up though before they let us in to see her. And, he left. What? I thought to myself... trouble waking her up? What's THAT suppose to mean?
When Dad & my older brother arrived, they asked if I had heard anything yet; I told them what the guy told me. And, we waited.
We finally got to see Mom around 9pm. She seemed fine. She was awake more than I thought she would be from the way they talked. When we told her, she, naturally, had no idea.
Mom stayed at the Dallas VA Hospital until the following Sunday; so, she missed church. Boy, she was not happy about that. We went to pick her up after church.
For those of you who don't know, when the entire breast must be removed, as is with inflammatory breast cancer, they also have to remove some of the chest wall muscle. They also take a number of lymphnodes. The breast and lymphnodes are sent for analysis. Luckily, Mom had very few lymphnodes affected, and those that were had stage 1 & 2 cancer cells in them. They said this was good. OK. They didn't believe it had spread because there were so few lymphnodes affected and the stage was low. OK. They told us it was estrogen driven cancer, which means the cancer feeds on estrogen... the reason HRT's (hormone replacement therapy) is a bad idea. Mom was put on it for menopause. When she started finding out all the bad stuff about it, she quit. It didn't matter. Anyway, when you are sent home, you are sent with drain tubes and things they call "bulbs" coming out of the side where the breast was removed. You have to make sure to squeeze the liquid out of these tubes down into the bulbs; then, empty the bulbs in a measuring thing, real scientific there. You have to write down the amount of liquid that comes out. As the liquid lessens, the closer you get to getting the tubes removed. This can be anywhere from a few days to a week or more.
Now, here we are 7 years later. Thank God, Mom has remained cancer free. We did, however, find out women who have had a breast removed have phantom pain similar to someone who has lost an arm or leg.
Unfortunately, Dad passed away 4th of July weekend, 2005, not even one year after Mom's surgery.
We also lost a dear friend from church to the same inflammatory breast cancer Mom had. She was told they thought they had gotten it all, but her lymphnodes were a higher stage... 3s and 4s. Not good. Her cancer spread to her brain. The tumor that began forming in her brain was inoperable. Her family brought her to several hospitals specializing in cancer research to no avail. To her credit, she did outlive their predicted time for her. She is sorely missed to this day.
For all of these women, I crafted the breast cancer rosary featuring Czech pressed glass pink aurora borealis hearts representative of the love we have for these beautiful women who have fought a battle that is not always won, but sooo appreciated when it is. The "Our Father" beads are clear lampwork beads with pink ribbons on either side. The lead-free pewter pink enameled ribbon center is handmade especially for this rosary by a talented maker of charms, who, incidentally, is originally from the same state Mom's from, Rhode Island. In the past couple years, he moved to Florida. Each rosary has a St Agatha medal attached to it. St Agatha is the patroness of breast cancer. To complete the rosary, I added the popular Papal crucifix. After receiving this rosary, many people have contacted me telling me how it brought tears to their eyes or those of their recipients. How just holding the beads brought them such peace. These stories make it all worth while. To be able to bring peace to anyone who is struggling with such a devastating illness, is the greatest feeling.
Because of this one rosary, and the request of a future customer for a rosary for ovarian cancer, I now make rosaries for several cancers, including lung cancer, skin cancer/melanoma, leukemia and general cancer awareness, as well as a few other illness such as diabetes, heart patient/disease, autism and arthritis. I actually have the enameled ribbon centers to do a prostate cancer rosary, but I haven't yet because I really don't know if a guy would use a pale/light blue rosary, as that is the color assigned to prostate cancer.
May God bless all those who are touched by breast cancer, as well as those who have been touched by any cancer.