Juliette Lynch (USA): Carcinoma in Familia
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Her son was barely one; her daughter about to enter preschool. The water covered her body as she ran her fingers over her skin, to check again that what she felt was real. It was Saturday morning, Father’s Day, and a routine shower became a moment fixed in time as Rebecca felt the lump in her right breast. She didn’t tell her husband for three days.
The doctors told her it was carcinoma in situ and invasive ductal carcinoma. It was a rare, aggressive, genetic form of breast cancer. Stage 3. She would need a bilateral mastectomy, two types of chemo, radiation, and a lengthy list of drugs to follow. Recovery would take years.
As Rebecca and her husband struggled to deal with the fear and impending difficulties, their thoughts turned towards their children. Who would care for them? How would their family manage with Rebecca ill and frequently in and out of the hospital and unable to care for the children while Guy worked?
While breast cancer is not unique, 95% of the cases develop in older women, ages 40 and above. But women who are diagnosed in their 20s or 30s face a unique set of challenges, including early menopause, infertility, financial instability, and body image issues. They face a higher risk of developing other types of cancer as well. These young women are often on the brink of, or already in the middle of, motherhood, and therefore have more responsibilities as they raise children, manage a household, and juggle a career. They may struggle to maintain their roles as mothers, wives, girlfriends, etc, as they undergo surgery, treatment, therapy and reconstruction.
I arrived at the intersection of cancer and family in September of 2011 as I moved from Florida to Maine help Rebecca and Guy with their children two days before Rebecca traveled to Boston for her first surgery. It was my first experience with acute illness as well as my first foray into the world of motherhood. Over the coming months I watched as the friend and mother I knew slid into a painful haze of chemotherapy and nausea, the balance between progress and survival a teeter-tauter that seemed so unfair. Her existence became rooted in the amount of footsteps taken, the small meals she ate, and the many miles traveled to and from Boston to receive treatment. We rooted and cheered if she made it down the stairs to sit on the couch and eat breakfast or dinner with us.
While I functioned as “mom,” I watched as cancer became so much bigger than a label, or a diagnosis. It became more than a sickness, or a loss of body parts, or the poisoning of the body with drugs. It was more than medical bills, and vomiting, and treatments, more than physical pain and the humiliation of hair and nails falling out or the loss of memory from chemo. For a young family with children, cancer was about the time lost. As Rebecca drifted in and out of daily life, and as Guy struggled to be a father, a husband, and a middle school teacher, they lost the time to watch their children grow and take part in the daily interactions that make being a parent so sweet. I watched as, despite all best intentions, the cancer metastasized into all areas of life, unfairly taking over. It manifests as confusion, stress and fatigue that continues for months and often years. Understanding is fumbled between spouses, and with the outside world, as family and friends struggle to be present amidst on-going trauma. Cancer can be piercingly alienating and lonely. It’s stigmatizing. And it leaves ruin in it’s wake….physical, financial, emotional, relational. So much rebuilding is required.
My project is built upon my desire to open the window into the complexities of illness within a young family and paint a more comprehensive image of how a mother and her family move through the cancer battle. The hope is to give insight into the debilitating effects of an illness and the simultaneous awaking of resilience and the deep-seated need to hold on to one’s foundational role within a family. I believe there is great power and redemption in unearthing the tension between the grieving and healing that is required after trauma. For Rebecca, healing is a delicate state of limbo. Recovery is a fine line between the pressing needs of the present and the impending obstacles of the future. It is the challenge to “be” in the present. It is the journey of slow emerging, of discovering the beauty among the ashes.