When celebrities like Angelina Joli, Joan Lunden and Hoda Kotb summon the courage to speak openly about their breast cancer, they offer an alternative to fear, hopelessness and isolation.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but for many, this awareness is year-round. My awesome artist-mother, Alice Steer Wilson, died of the disease in 2001. As a high-risk woman with high-density breast tissue (difficult daughter with complicated breasts), I’ve undergone MRIs, ultrasounds, genetic testing, biannual mammograms, physician exams, and self-exams. I’ve understood the importance of early detection since the late 1980s, when I wrote educational brochures for a women’s health center. My mother’s stage four breast cancer was diagnosed in December 1995, and I couldn’t help but feel that I’d let the most important woman in my life down by failing to speak up. For years, we’d worked closely on art exhibits and presentations. We’d shared countless weight-loss programs, but we didn’t discuss breast health. I’ll never forget the blanketing snowfall and the silence inside the car that December night as I drove my parents home from the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. During the physician’s exam, we’d seen my mother’s chest with the textbook sign of advanced breast cancer: an inverted nipple.
My mother had always been proud of her health, and she was a lively 69 years old when her cancer was diagnosed. Suspicious of coddling, she was the type to forgo Novocaine at the dentist’s office and always work through a cold or fever. I wondered if she would try to tough this one out, also, but after she heard the odds she grabbed every medical option, every shred of life she could hold. Alice bid farewell to her breast, her hair, and she welcomed the most aggressive chemotherapy. Then she followed with radiation. When her straight black hair grew in curly that autumn, she resumed painting and life, with gusto.
Alice’s battle for life put all of our past skirmishes in perspective. We’d fought often during my teens and twenties, but now we were aligned as mother and daughter. She welcomed my care-giving, and I admired her passion; then, four years later, when we saw her death approaching, she asked me to curate her lifework.
In her studio, after she died, I discovered hundreds of forgotten or never-seen treasures. Many images moved me close to tears, but the hidden self-portrait excited me beyond all the rest. The portrait, above, showed me that she knew her strength and faced her mortality head-on, post-mastectomy, post-chemotherapy. When I looked at that portrait for the first time, I saw the awesome mother I’d known so well. This is the face of an artist who painted until the last days of her life, while tethered to an oxygen tank and confined to a hospital bed in a sun room. I changed my course to support and witness that journey, and I have never regretted it.
I hope our story helps you–awesome daughters of difficult mothers, or difficult daughters of awesome mothers–to overcome fear, hopelessness, or isolation, and mine the hidden riches of your mother-daughter journey.
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