I was in the room the day my mom found out she had cancer. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been, but I’m not sure if I would have believed it otherwise. I was twenty-one years old, working my first real job after college, in my first serious relationship, feeling on top of the world. It was a time in my life when I felt invincible. At the time, I worked in marketing for the same company at which my mother worked—and still works—as the accounting and HR manager, and had given my two weeks’ notice just days earlier, ready to pursue my dream of being a writer with the support of my parents.
That particular day in November, I was filling in for the administrative assistant at the front desk while she was away on vacation. Situated ten steps down the hall from my mom’s office instead of upstairs and across the building, our paths crossed more frequently throughout those few days. I remember thinking that my mom was quieter than usual, but deciding it was simply because she was being professional, not wanting to chit-chat about dinner plans and TV shows in the middle of the work day.
The words came tumbling out sometime after lunch. “I found a lump on my neck,” Mom said nonchalantly as she passed the front desk. “Pauline says I should get it looked at ASAP.”
“What do you mean? Let me see.” Though I was sure that whatever my mom and Pauline had found was the result of some middle-aged co-worker conversation about pains and ailments, I was the type of person who frequented WebMD and often jumped right to the worst-case scenario. Cursed with myriad, albeit minor, medical problems, I’d convinced myself that I’d had everything from Hashimoto’s disease to hiatal hernias. Not only was my delusion level higher than I’d care to admit, but this was my mother we were talking about, the same person who never took sick days and had a seemingly limitless pain threshold. Something wasn’t adding up.
My mom directed me to the right side of her neck, where, sure enough, there was a small mountain forming beneath her ear. I assured her that it was probably nothing, maybe just an oversized pimple, or even a swollen lymph node, but I knew that I was really trying to assure myself. Nonetheless, at our co-worker’s insistence, my mom decided that she needed to be sure the lump was as insignificant as we both hoped it was.
Waiting was the worst part. That same day we first discovered the lump, I took my younger sister to an evening dentist appointment so that my mom could get into the earliest possible opening her doctor had. As my mom told me over the phone, in the hour I’d spent with my sister in the dentist’s office, the doctor had examined the lump, sent her for a CT scan and blood work, and scheduled her for a biopsy.
A few days later, the word “oncologist” was used for the first time. In the interest of honesty, I’ll share that I looked up the definition and role of an oncologist on numerous web sources, just to make sure I fully understood the gravity of the situation. I was hoping that the public school system had failed me, that I’d misconstrued what an oncologist did. My web searches confirmed what I’d spent days denying, that this lump was more than a blip in the grand scheme of our lives.
Each new test result seemed to open the door to two more tests. The final test, at least until the treatment started, led us to a local branch of Cooper University Hospital on a weekday afternoon. When I say us, I’m referring to my mom, my dad, and myself, though my parents had pleaded for me to stay home. To this day, I’m still not sure if it’s because they simply didn’t want me there or because they wanted to shield me from the possible reality. Perhaps it was a bit of both. In hindsight, I was probably wrong to intrude, but, on that day, all I cared about was getting answers.
I’ll never forget my first big freelancing job, because the offer came through as we were waiting for the doctor to come in that day. I debated about whether or not I should share the news with my parents, given the less-than-ideal timing, but opted to tell them because I figured it could be a distraction. Thankfully, I was right. They were thrilled, and we talked about the specifics of the job—they wanted to make sure everything was on the up-and-up and I wasn’t getting ripped off—until the oncologist came into the exam room.
He talked in numbers that didn’t quite make sense to me—levels, counts, percentages. I’m fairly certain I’m the one who ultimately asked the big question: was it cancer?
It was. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Stage 3a. She’d start chemo as soon as possible.
I took my mom to her treatment one time out of six. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go any of the other times. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I may be biased, but my mother is one of the most genuinely caring, considerate, giving people you’ll ever meet. Because of that, everyone she’d had an impact on—friends, family, neighbors, co-workers—was lining up to help. Some sent over dinners so we didn’t have to worry about meals, ironic since my mother hardly cooked, while others took her to chemo treatments and follow-up appointments.
Several weeks before I went with my mom up to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she’d opted to go for chemo due to their excellent reputation, I approached her with the idea of forming a team in her honor for a local cancer 5K walk. I wanted desperately to feel like I was doing something to help her, if not physically than emotionally, and I thought that a boost of morale might do the trick.
My mom was thrilled with the idea, and, within an hour, I had a team fundraising page created. I surprised her three days before her fifth treatment with two hundred custom silicone bracelets, lime green to represent lymphoma. The bracelets read “Elise’s Entourage—Fighting Cancer Together,” and I can’t remember for sure, but I’d wager that she cried upon seeing them.
Despite the physical and emotional toll that cancer and chemotherapy can have on a person, my mom was the epitome of grace and strength throughout her treatment. She never used cancer as an excuse. As a matter of fact, on the day I was scheduled to take her to chemo, I had to pick her up from work on the way to train station. That’s right. She worked all throughout her treatment, even on chemo days, with the exception of a week she spent in the hospital due to an infection.
At treatment, she was her usual chipper self, making conversation with the staff and handing out her Elise’s Entourage bracelets to every nurse she encountered. She played games on her cell phone and told her life story to strangers on the train, which—if you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting my mother, you can vouch for this—is completely normal behavior for her.
With the exception of the needle in her arm, her evident fatigue, and the surgical mask she wore to avoid germs in her weakened state, it felt just like any other day.
On June 30, 2017, three days after my mom’s 52nd birthday, my parents downsized from the three-story, five-bedroom, 3800 square foot house I grew up in to a three-bedroom, 1600 square foot rancher three miles away. With me and my twin sister out of the house, they’d decided it was time for a new beginning.
That same day, moments after my parents and I walked through the front door after settlement, my mom’s oncologist called. Per my parents’ request, I left the room and went to the other side of the rancher, simultaneously wanting to eavesdrop to learn the truth and stay naïve to the reality of the situation.
With one sister in Ohio and the other at her summer job, I was the only of my parents’ three children they’d have to share the news, good or bad, with, and we’d all grown used to expecting the worst. Each time my mother had received a call from a doctor, it had led us further down the path of cancer treatment, from the initial CT scan to the last chemo treatment.
It felt like it had been a half hour but had likely only been two or three minutes when my dad finally called my name from the other room. Walking down the main hallway in the home my parents planned on spending the rest of their lives in, I wondered just how long the rest of their lives would be. I’d been certain from the initial diagnosis that my mom would beat cancer. After all, she was the strongest person I knew, the kind of person who never used cancer as an excuse or asked for sympathy, despite the sympathy others were willing to offer. On the other hand, I was a numbers person, and any survival rate less than 100% worried me.
The minute I turned the corner into the kitchen, I saw tears streaming down both my parents’ cheeks. Without really knowing why, and unable to stop, I began crying along with them. I was so certain this nightmare was starting all over again, that the doctor had called to say that my mom needed to undergo more chemo or radiation.
I can’t quite remember the words that came out of my mouth when I approached the table, but I’d imagine it was something like, “Well, what’d he say?”
Everything my mom said was a blur except the word “remission.” It was all I heard and all I cared about. It really was the fresh start they’d been hoping for.
My mom then reminded me—and continues to remind me—that the cancer would never truly be gone. Lymphoma has one of the highest recurrence rates amongst cancers. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. I hugged my mom and let the tears fall down her face onto my shirt sleeve.
Sarah Levine is a freelance writer and editor from New Jersey who holds a BA in English from William Paterson University and MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. In addition to having completed over 200 freelance projects ranging from resume rewrites to manuscript editing, Sarah has ghostwritten six novels and several nonfiction books and has been published by Trouvaille Review and RK Leighton Publishing.