by Cara Essick Ontiveros
Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Robin Roberts, Judy Blume, Melissa Etheridge, Kathy Bates, and Michelle Essick all have one very important thing in common. They are all breast cancer survivors. But, who is Michelle Essick, you ask? Well, she is my mom and an eight-year cancer survivor. Cancer; it’s a horrible word isn’t it? Cancer was always something I thought happened to other people and their families, certainly not mine. Our family was immune to such a horrible thing.
What a naive fool I was. On April 1st 2004, the cruelest of all April Fool’s Day jokes was told to my mother with four life changing words; “You have breast cancer.” But, sadly this wasn’t a joke. It was very real, very serious, and very scary.
On the day of my mother’s diagnosis, I remember feeling sick with fear and my dad and I were crying in the waiting room trying to pull it together to be strong for my mom. We knew that more tests and scans needed to be done to determine if the cancer had spread anywhere else in her body. Waiting…. anyone that has ever been through a cancer diagnosis, whether for yourself or a loved one, can agree that waiting is one of the hardest and most stressful parts of the process. Waiting leads to mind games, self diagnosis, fears, unnecessary internet reading, and a tremendous amount of anxiety for both the cancer patient and their family. Once we knew what we were dealing with, a plan was made and we were ready to fight like we had never fought before.
My mom was diagnosed with stage 2 in situ carcinoma breast cancer and thankfully the cancer was contained to only one breast and it was treatable and curable. She needed to have a single mastectomy and elected to have reconstructive surgery at the same time. Her cancer had spread into two of her lymph nodes which would most definitely require her to undergo chemotherapy but thankfully she did not have to endure radiation. Life was about to become very different for our family, but we were focused on removing the cancer from all of our lives.
Phrases in our family, like “the new norm,” “no news is good news,” and “over the speed bump,” were said frequently. Things such as family vacations, errand running, movie going, and dining out were replaced with trips to the oncologists, surgeons, support groups, wig shopping, and many days at home resting and recovering. This was a major adjustment for my very active and healthy parents and a frightening time for my brother, Eric, and me.
My mom was a total rock star during her treatment schedule. She was MUCH stronger than I could have ever been. After a successful surgery, she began eight rounds of chemotherapy. She knew that she would lose her hair shortly after she began treatment and she was fine with it. For her, it was just another step closer to the end of the race. For me, it was the hardest part of her treatment plan. Prior to chemo, my mom looked like my mom, but chemo would transform her into a cancer patient and that was a reality that I wasn’t ready to face. It took me a good six weeks to see her without her wig, not something I am proud of. I stayed with her every night in the hospital after her surgery, went to nearly every oncology appointment and chemo treatment, made countless meals and brought over pick-me-up goodie bags, but seeing my mom bald was too much for me to handle at that time.
The support that our family received was overwhelming. My mom knew from the moment she was diagnosed that she was not alone. From our family to friends to my husband who shaved his head so my mom wasn’t the only “baldy” in the family, we had a team behind us which carried us through during the difficult times from negative reactions to chemotherapy to blood transfusions.
The ironic part of our story begins roughly 15 years ago while I was working at Clear Channel Radio. I received a call from a volunteer with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation saying they were hosting Race for the Cure and wanted to know if our radio stations would promote their Race through public service announcements to raise awareness and funds for the cause. Gladly, we accepted their invitation and at my first Race for the Cure, I fell in love and felt inspired. I loved the cause, the breast cancer survivors, and their co-survivors (friends and family who stand by your side during your cancer journey).
Seeing the “Sea of Pink” was truly remarkable as I had never participated in an event that had more heart and soul than Race for the Cure. Thus began my amazing journey with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I walked or ran many of the Race for the Cures and met the most amazing network of passionate women on the planet, all working together to eradicate breast cancer forever. My first call after my mother’s diagnosis was to a woman that I met through Komen. She was also a breast cancer survivor and was truly our rock during my mom’s journey. Putting my mom in contact with other breast cancer survivors was the greatest gift I could have given her. The support, knowledge, and new found sisterhood were gifts that proved to be priceless.
My mom was actually very lucky when you think about it. She had good health insurance, a supportive family, transportation to and from various appointments, the knowledge of knowing her breasts and doing her monthly exams, and various resources readily available to her. Imagine the woman who does not have the knowledge to do her monthly self breast exams and years pass before she finds the lump. Imagine the woman who does not have health insurance, a support system, or transportation to and from treatment or doctor’s appointments. I learned during my time volunteering with Susan G. Komen that they help to fill in those gaps by funding local programs that provide treatment, screening, and education for women who are uninsured, underinsured, or underserved.
My passion for Komen is a part of me. Breast cancer is a part of me… heck… I guarantee that breast cancer has affected you in one way or another. I was honored to become the Board President for the West Michigan affiliate for Susan G. Komen in 2010, a position that I held for two fulfilling years. I will continue to walk with my fellow co-survivors as we celebrate the survivors and honor those who lost their fight at each Race for the Cure. I will continue to be an advocate for my mom, your mom, our grandmothers, aunts, cousins, friends, and, most importantly, our daughters. Someday we will live in a world without breast cancer, but unfortunately that time is not now.
Yes, cancer stinks with a capital S! (Actually, I don’t think that they would print the word that I would use to describe cancer.) Yes, cancer is an un-welcomed visitor into your body, into your family, and into your life. Yes, cancer takes you places you never want to go, like an oncologist’s office, a surgeon’s office, a hospital, or a wig shop. But, cancer does one thing that is a positive, it unites. Never underestimate the will, determination, and drive within a cancer patient. United they can move mountains, raise some hell and someday . . . find a cure.