This is Laura’s keynote address from the 2017 ACS Relay for Life, her testament to her mother, her “best friend and idol.” Her mother, Joanne Perriens’ story can be read here.
Courage is defined as “strength in the face of grief.” When I look among the faces today, I see the embodiment of courage – cancer patients, caregivers, service providers, medical professionals, and others who have been touched by this disease.
Getting cancer, caring for someone with it, and in some cases seeing some die from it shows unfathomable courage. You have no choice. If you ever wondered how strong you are, look to your relationship with cancer and the answer is clear. You are STRONG and you are not alone!
I first heard the word cancer in 1976, when I was a sophomore in college. It came out of my mother’s mouth. “I have breast cancer.” In those days, one didn’t speak that word in public. So my family and my mother’s doctor were the only ones who knew. She did not tell her friends. She did not tell her coworkers. There was next to no support system for my mother, nor was there readily available information about the disease. After all, there was no Internet then. You were expected to put one foot in front of the other and soldier on, alone. Which is what she did. She had a mastectomy and then a full year of chemotherapy. When treatment was over, mom tried to get back to the business of living. Six years later, during a routine exam, another tumor was found. This time it was caught early but, as was the protocol of the day, mom had a second mastectomy.
The years went by and thoughts of cancer receded somewhat into the background. Somehow, it seemed, my mother had beaten the odds. At first, thinking about the future meant looking a few months down the road. Over time, she was able to look several years ahead. Until 22 years later, when I came to her with the same words: “I have breast cancer.” Mom’s fears for herself became fears for me. By the time I was diagnosed in 2004, cancer had come out of the closet! There had been many advances in treatment and there were all kinds of support groups and services available to me. I didn’t have to hide my circumstances. In fact, my bald head became my “badge of courage” – an indicator of what I was going through but was not giving in to. Without knowing it, I had grown up with a role model before my eyes. I had seen my mother face cancer with such determination and strength and knew I could do the same. She helped me through surgery and treatment and was the voice of reason when I expressed my darkest fears.
It’s funny how one wonders sometimes why certain things happen to you in life. I think cancer happened first to my mother so that I would be vigilant in my own self-care and so that she could support me. And I think I got cancer so that I could comfort and support my mother like no other caregiver could when her disease returned after 34 years.
In 2010, mom’s breast cancer showed up in her lungs, pelvis, and bones. Understandably, anyone would have caved from such news. But my mother chose to do as much as she could to extend her life and enjoy the time she had – and she was successful at it for 6 more years. She was her oncologist’s poster child – a 40-year survivor! And I was her caregiver, who had been on the other side and knew what she was facing.
I was 19 when my mother was first diagnosed. Imagine if she had died then! Thanks to the determination of doctors and researchers who advanced the treatments – and my mother’s insistence on living – mom saw me graduate from college, marry, have children, have a successful career, and beat cancer myself.
My personal and family histories are the catalyst for my support of the Relay. I have seen with my own eyes the changes that have come in the past 40 years – for all of us, regardless of the type of cancer we’ve dealt with. And I know that it has been a hard-fought battle for funding, recognition, new treatment approaches, more services, and more awareness. We are fortunate that people 40 years ago were courageous enough to study, test, and document their journeys so that we could benefit from that today. I hope the next generation of cancer researchers, patients, and caregivers will reap the benefits of our actions now.
Today we honor courage – the courage we have had to muster – the strength it has taken us to face our mortality, surgeries, disfigurement, treatment, and its side effects, and emotional upheaval. We honor the researchers, doctors, and nurses who have forged the path for us patients to follow. We honor the caregivers – our family and friends – who are and have been courageous enough to stand beside us as we walked this path. We honor each other, for each of us is a support to the next cancer survivor. We also honor the service providers who have massaged us, counseled us, outfitted us with wigs or makeup, or shopped and cleaned for us. And, of course, we honor the incredible courage of those who fought and are no longer with us.
My radiation oncologist once quoted John Wayne to me: “Courage means being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” We have all saddled up in our own way to deal with this disease. Let’s rejoice in how far we’ve come. Let’s remember those who came before us whose struggles led to our successes. And let’s never forget those who fought the fight with courage and dignity but didn’t make it.
Laura Perriens’ keynote address from the 2017 ACS Relay for Life to her “best friend and idol,” her mother Joanne Perriens