I was 12 and had gotten out of bed for a glass of water when I overheard my parents talking in the kitchen.
“They think it’s breast cancer?” I heard my father ask.
“I have to go in for more tests,” my mother responded.
And that’s how two sentences I was never supposed to hear were the ones that would forever change my life.
My mother was officially diagnosed a few weeks later. My parents didn’t talk much about it, but I knew. I found pamphlets lying around the house and heard them whispering when they thought I wasn’t around. One day, in the middle of Walmart, my father told me my mother was sick. “I know,” I said. And that was that.
But my mother was strong in the face of her diagnosis, even if it was just for me. When she came home from her first surgery, so weak she could hardly stand, she told us she was fine. When she lost her hair from chemo, she smiled at me and told me it was okay, it would all grow back. When she went out into public, she held her head high, even though I knew her treatments made her feel sick all the time. She did everything her doctors told her to do without a single complaint. If her optimism ever waned, it never showed. Even weakened, she was strong.
But this is nothing new to me now — I come from a family of breast cancer survivors, of women who have stood tall as their bodies waged war against them. They say one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and my family certainly fell in line with the statistics: two of my aunts and my grandmother were later diagnosed, too.
Of all the strong women role models I had in my life, four were breast cancer survivors. Four. I realize I am lucky — any of them could’ve been torn from me so easily, no matter how hard they fought. Cancer isn’t a fair game and anyone who thinks it is is only fooling themselves. But watching so many amazing women overcome the greatest obstacles in their lives taught me about grace, about strength, about persistence. It taught me that I may someday be in their shoes, too, and that sometimes the only way to handle hardship is to face it head-on. It taught me that we can’t ignore the statistics.
Because the truth is that you never think it’s going to happen to you — my mother didn’t, and my aunts didn’t, and my grandmother certainly didn’t. You never think you’ll be part of a statistic until suddenly, you are — you are no longer the “eight” but that “one.”
I’m not writing this to scare you, but to make you aware. I never thought I would have to watch my mother fight for her life. And after she won, I never thought I’d have to watch anyone else in my life do it again. Still, a decade later, I hope I never will. But one in eight is a huge statistic, big enough that it will affect nearly every human on Earth in some way. And that’s why breast cancer awareness matters.
So what can we do about it? Sure, we can talk about it, but we can do more. We can donate to research centers. We can encourage the women in our lives to get regular breast exams. We can teach women the warning signs so that they can understand their bodies. We can work for better healthcare and a government that supports women’s health.
And we can fight, like my mother did when she wasn’t sure there was any hope. Like my aunts and my grandma did when they found themselves in the same position. Like everyone in my family did when we realized that even thought we weren’t specifically part of the statistic, the statistic was still somehow part of us.
After all, if my mother taught me anything, perhaps the strongest thing you can do is take action, even if it takes every bit of strength you have left. Even when all of the statistics are against you.