My Mother’s Cancer Taught Me How to Navigate the Negative
How my mother’s illness helped me to find true happiness.
It was the evening of October 27, 2020, when my phone rang. I was sitting in my college apartment in Gainesville, Florida, studying for midterms. On the other end of the line was my mother. I was expecting a catch-up call with my mom, but instead, my world stopped. Her words hit me like a freight train: “It’s cancer.” We cried, hung up, and then I cried some more. My mom—my best friend, my role model, my everything—had just been diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer, and I was hundreds of miles away.
I’m the youngest of three—my two older brothers are my biggest blessings. My parents have always made sacrifices for us, and they have proven to me that love is unconditional. Thankfully, I grew up in a happy home. My family has always been there for each other, supporting each other's dreams, providing shoulders to cry on—we’re close. So that day, when I was receiving calls from my mom, dad, brothers and grandma, there were a lot of tears. We’re also a very strong, prideful family, so when I heard my favorite people crying on the phone, far away with nobody to hold, it was hard—quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.
My Mom Is an Icon of Generosity
I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that life has not met me with much difficulty. I grew up in a loving home, made good grades, was involved in school, had friends and never felt the weight of deep sadness. This unfamiliar weight was so heavy on that day that the scale nearly broke. My mom, the most important woman in my life, had cancer and I couldn’t even hug her. On top of being so far away, we were in the middle of a global pandemic. With my mom being the genuine people-person that she is, it broke my heart to think she couldn’t see her friends or hug them—she couldn’t even leave the house. Despite the negatives stacked against her, she remained positive.
My mom is the type of person who would wake up at 4 a.m. every day so she could prepare a fresh lunch for her kids to take to school, the one who cooks extra food for her coworkers. Upon walking through our front doors, she will always ask if you are hungry. (My friends have learned to arrive at our house with an empty stomach.) She hosted dinners for the cheer team, even after her daughter graduated. She always puts others before herself, and she is transparently honest. My mom is strong—the strongest woman I’ve ever met. Her motto is “Fighting!” because no matter what challenge she faces, she is prepared to fight through it and come out stronger—a quality that she has instilled in me. Now that she has cancer, the word “fighting!” gets thrown around like confetti. It may sound silly but hearing that word is what gets me through each day.
Because we live in a small town, everyone knew about the cancer soon after the diagnosis. And since my mom is a pillar in our community and opens her kitchen and home to everyone, countless people wanted to help however they could. With so many people in her corner, my mom started to realize how loved she really is. As letters, flowers and meals poured in, my family grew even more thankful to have the life we do. Not only were we blessed to have our community in our corner, but we were blessed to have each other. In the process, we grew closer and stronger than ever before, which I didn’t think was possible. I am reluctant to admit that I have an unhealthy habit of avoiding my feelings. The support I experienced from my friends and family was nothing short of overwhelming. I’ve learned how important feelings and emotions are, and I have grown strong enough to recognize and appreciate my weaknesses. Despite my past tendency to avoid my feelings, my family held me while I let them pour—even hundreds of miles away.
I’ve Found Strength in My Mother’s Will to Fight
It’s interesting how cancer dances between the lines of life and death but can also be used as a force to bring joy. It has inadvertently strengthened me as a person, making me more genuine, hopeful and happy.
I went home to see my mom the weekend after the doctors diagnosed her and surgically removed the tumor. I got there the day before she was released from the hospital. Physically, my mom was weak. Mentally, she stood strong. Although exhausted, she walked into our home with a big smile on her face, clearly ready to fight like hell. While every part of me wanted to stay home and be with my family, I knew I had to go back to school. Upon returning to Gainesville, a switch flipped.
I studied more, became more organized and focused on the things I could control. Part of my drive was fueled by my attempt to avoid thinking about my mom’s diagnosis. But most of it came from my mom’s attitude about her diagnosis. She’s going through chemotherapy—currently in month four. Every day, she sends me a message with hearts, smiles, updates and of course, “Fighting!” Each day, she indirectly shows me her strength and drive to beat this thing. I do the same in return. In this way, my mom and I feed off of each other. That’s what keeps me going.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to hurt and that you’re stronger than you think. I’m lucky to have the support system I do and to feel comfortable sharing these types of feelings. In the beginning, I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t be okay sitting in my apartment or do well in school. But here I am.
Pain Can Be an Incredible Teacher
Through this experience, I’ve developed a healthy way to cope and navigate the challenges thrown in my life. A lot of it has to do with that amazing support system, but a lot of it also has to do with my strength. I used to be prideful yet humble. Now I’m confident and proud. I’m not conceited, but I would be a fool to dismiss my strength. As I allow myself to be strong and proud, I also give myself the time to mourn. I’m not saying any of this has been easy; I’m just saying it’s possible.
Becoming a more positive person isn’t about always being happy. It’s about allowing room for hope. It’s not that the sun shines brighter now, but it’s the fact that I can see that one slim ray that makes it through on cloudy days. It’s not making myself smile more often; it’s finding more reasons to smile. It’s not about wanting to be cancer-free one day, but having the hope to fight until you are. To be positive is not to look at life through this lens that optimizes everything and everyone. Life throws us challenges. It’s unpredictable and oftentimes defeating. To be positive is to recognize reasons to keep going through these times—to have hope.
Not a day goes by that I’m not met with fear regarding my mom’s health. I’m not saying there aren’t bad days because there are. On those days, you can hurt, and you can hurt as hard as you need. Through that hurt, you’ll start to realize the inner strength you didn’t know you had. You can use the negative to navigate your way to the positive. There can be good times, even during the bad times.