Paola is a Girl Scout Ambassador and the creator of The Shoulder To Lean On Project. She hopes that by spreading awareness about cancer and reassuring loved ones of cancer patients, she can make the transition between pre-diagnosis life and treatment much smoother for everyone involved.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.”
― Ed Sheeran
No one thinks their parent is going to get cancer.
In this world, it never even crosses our minds that things like that even exist. Until they affect us, they’re little more than a statistic or a whisper of a diagnosis in the hallways at school. It’s the way that we’re wired—we’re a very “that can’t happen to me” species. Unfortunately, it’s clear that oftentimes, that mindset is all an illusion.
In April of 2015, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. To say the diagnosis came as a shock would be an understatement. My mother, being the stubborn and independent woman she was, went to get her biopsy results alone. Her breast specialist, whom she had been working closely with since an irregular mammogram result a few weeks prior, promised her that the results would come out clean, so she didn’t feel the need to take my father or me to the appointment. I woke up that morning to the sound of the garage door opening and, shortly afterwards, uncharacteristically hushed whispers from my parents.
I went downstairs to find my parents exchanging solemn words in my father’s home office. When my mom caught my eye, she let out a breath and smiled, but it wasn’t the smile she gave me every morning after I rolled out of bed. This was something else entirely. Two minutes later, I would be sitting on the couch in my father’s office, staring slack-jawed as my mother explained that she was diagnosed with DCIS.
Plainly speaking, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is known as stage 0 breast cancer, which is basically cancer in its diaper years. When the words “cancer” slipped out of her lips, I completely blanked out on everything else, including the fact that her cancer wasn’t all that invasive. How could my mother have cancer? What about the most incredible woman I knew made something so malignant pick her? The answer, of course, is simple: cancer, like so many things in this life, doesn’t pick people based off who they are. It doesn’t pick people at all. It simply is.
Everyone deals with a loved one’s diagnosis differently. I have friends who saw it as a slight change in routine, an obstacle to overcome, while it brought others’ everyday lives to a screeching halt. There’s no right way to cope with a loved one’s disease because that would mean that everyone would have the same thoughts and emotions, and that would be completely unrealistic.
I was one of the people who didn’t cope with it as seamlessly as I would have liked. Even during the weeks that followed, I spent my time in a daze, still in disbelief that something like this would be happening to my mother. Everything was eerily routine, like the doctor’s visits and, eventually, radiation appointments. Life seemed normal, but there was something quite the contrary to normal growing inside of my mother, and it freaked me out.
It was nearly a guarantee that my mother would turn out okay, but I had already spent so many years worrying about whether or not my Pandora’s box of a mom would develop something even worse that I felt like oh my gosh, what if she dies from something like this? While they caught this cancer early, this wasn’t her first tumor by a long shot, so I couldn’t help but think that maybe one day they’d catch something else too late. So many what ifs went through my head that it felt like I was drowning in words.
I think the worst part was that no one really coached me through it. Just like learning how to ride a bike, sometimes you need someone to hold your hand while you come to terms with something new and frightening. My best friends, as well as my boyfriend at the time, were very supportive of me, but they didn’t really know what it felt like. None of them had ever experienced cancer in the family, which was a blessing but made me feel alone. The rest of my friends and acquaintances, unfortunately, couldn’t really do much in the helping department. Since my mom refused to tell anyone about her diagnosis so they wouldn’t tell her mother until she told her in person, I couldn’t approach anyone to talk about how I was feeling. I had friends whose parents were going through or had just finished cancer treatment, but I couldn’t talk to them. It felt like solitary confinement. Dramatic, but coming from someone who feeds off other people’s good vibes like a psychological sponge, it’s not really an exaggeration.
My mother’s treatment, unfortunately, coincided with a very ugly breakup, which meant I had even less people to talk to about what was going on in my family. All the chat rooms and websites that I looked up in hopes of finding somewhere to vent, or at least ease my tension, were either targeted towards little kids or full of adult caretakers discussing their loved ones’ predicaments. There was no one place for me to talk to other kids about what was happening in my life. Since I felt like I’d just seem childish and weak if I went to talk to a priest or anyone who was sworn to confidentiality, I just kept my emotions bottled up. I didn’t want my mother to think that I was taking her diagnosis too hard anyway. She was the one going through something scary, not me, and to me, that didn’t give me enough license to admit I wasn’t coping flawlessly. I already felt like I wasn’t doing enough for her and I thought that would just make it worse.
By doing this project, I hope to keep others from having to go through this journey alone. No one’s alone in this world and it’s important that we remember that in our times of need.
I egged myself on through the near-end of the school year and, eventually, my mother’s surgery. The worst part was probably seeing them wheel her away, because I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d find something else; something worse. A couple of hours later, they wheeled her out, and just a couple of weeks later, they announced her cancer free.
To say the least, I was relieved. When we got home that day, I locked myself in my room and cried tears of joy. Suddenly, everyone at church and at school knew about my mother’s brave battle with cancer and they were so proud of her. I was proud of her too. My mom, who’d undergone so many surgeries I’d lost count, beat something else: cancer.
Eventually, the issues caused by her diagnosis hit a stalemate. I realized that I couldn’t have done anything except be there for her, which is what I did. I came out of my crab hole of depression and began playing volleyball. The sport helped. Any sort of sport where you bond with others helps. Even today, a year after everything that happened, I can confidently say that my teammates are there for me no matter what. Sheltering yourself from society just because someone you care about is ill might work in the short term, but for the long term, being surrounded by people that care about you will benefit you more than you think.
Months later, when mom started radiation treatment and the school year came rolling around again, I realized the full extent of cancer’s reach. You never really realize it until one point, one specific event, and that was mine. Despite the fact that my mother had radiation every day, she would come to every single one of my volleyball practices—sometimes exhausted from radiation that morning, sometimes not. My volleyball coach, who was very supportive of her, pulled me to the side during practice and whispered something in my ear that made me smile from ear to ear. That next game, she pulled us into the locker room for a pre-game huddle, and fifteen minutes later, we came out running clad in breast-cancer-pink warm-up shirts. My mom was too shocked to cry. The stands cheered. I felt so happy I could have cried.
The rest of the school must have liked the shirt, because slowly, more and more people started buying the shirt. They didn’t all know who it was for, but they had all either experienced cancer, had it themselves, or supported the cause. It was beautiful. I couldn’t help but think that maybe if I had been surrounded by those people when mom was going through her treatment, I would have been okay. Seeing this, being indirectly supported by so many people, inspired me to start the The STLO Project.
Everyone has two shoulders to lean on. Sometimes, we think that both shoulders are for others to rest their heads on, but really, that’s just a misconception. If we only take care of others during shared troubles, we’re abandoning ourselves. We have two shoulders because one is for those we care about to lean on and the other is for ourselves.