By Cynthia Ryan
The Sisterhood of Survivorship
A breast cancer survivor experiences the complexity of her individual identity among a community of very different survivors
By Cynthia Ryan
Late in 2001, my mother-in-law, Eleanor, phoned to tell me that a recent breast biopsy had revealed a malignancy. After a lumpectomy and a round of chemotherapy, her stage II cancer seemed to be in remission. But by 2004, the disease had metastasized to her bones.
Ironically, the last time we spent together was at Thanksgiving in 2004 when Eleanor flew to Birmingham, Ala., to help me juggle the responsibilities of caring for my girls, Celia and Lena, while I, too, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I had been first diagnosed in 1993, and was experiencing a second bout with breast cancer when my mother-in-law visited us 11 years later. Although Eleanor suffered pain and fears of her own, she was determined to be a part of my recovery. She rushed to the rescue, prioritizing the needs of my family above her own. As I look back on these days now, I am struck by the absurdity of the two of us debating who was sicker and who needed more care—a contest of sorts that we often laughed about.
“How are you feeling today?” I’d ask.
“Oh, you know,” she’d respond, shrugging her shoulders.
“Yep,” I’d reply, grinning. Our connection—the “been there, done that” camaraderie that only survivors can understand—was never clearer than at these moments.
Why then, when my mother-in-law returned home and her health began to decline rapidly, did I call her less frequently than I thought I would, or perhaps felt I should? And why did I not rush to Eleanor’s side as she endured the complications of advanced breast cancer, reciprocating her kindness and selflessness?
Eleanor died in June of 2005, and our family of four—my husband, Bruce, our daughters and I—quickly made arrangements to fly to Chicago for her funeral. While I expected to feel intense sorrow when I came face to face with my mother-in-law and revisited her life through the memories offered by family and friends, I responded in some surprising ways, too. I was about to embark on a difficult psychological and emotional journey to determine how I could remain connected to Eleanor and retain my own identity as a wife, mother and survivor.
On one hand, I felt remarkably close to Eleanor as I looked at her face and her hands gently folded, ashamed that I had not reached out to her more in the last few months of her life. But on the other, I wondered if I really knew this woman at all—if perhaps we were far more different than our common experience had once made me imagine.
Over the course of many nights following the funeral, I awoke suddenly from nightmares in which I, not Eleanor, lay in a casket. Variations of this same dream included conversations in which I desperately tried to explain to someone that I wasn’t the one who had died of breast cancer—it was my mother-in-law. Perhaps the most disturbing recurring image involved a face that was blurred, at times looking like Eleanor and at times looking like me. I thought I was losing my mind.
Eventually, as I neared the first anniversary of Eleanor’s death, I began to recognize something that the immediacy of our family’s loss had not allowed. Breast cancer had brought Eleanor and me together in many ways—we swapped stories about our experiences with the medical establishment, the side effects of chemo, reports of promising cancer research, and, of course, our trepidation about the future. We were a team, facing breast cancer head-on. But Eleanor’s death had also marked our individuality, the differences that set apart even the closest team members.
I think of the moment of her passing as a point of breaking away. While Eleanor and I had “run the race” side by side, I now had to determine how to address this disease alone. As close as we might have been, and as much as we shared through our identities as survivors, we were also individuals who would experience breast cancer in our own way, uniquely and unpredictably.