How I Faced My First Mammogram After Losing My Mother To Breast Cancer

“Take care of her. I only have one mother.”

Erica Orloff

Whenever I was afraid of something, my mother told me, “you can do it” with an enthusiasm that filled me with belief. So it went with my fear of flying (got over it) and my fear of public speaking (ditto). I’d pull on my pair of “lucky” cowboy boots and march out the door as if they could fill me with courage. But really? It was her.

We called it Faking Brave.

Then my mother was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer, one of the more than 250,000 new, invasive breast cancer cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Suddenly, the word “fear” had a whole different meaning. Fear became my companion. It followed me. It breathed on the back of my neck. It taunted me. And not even my cowboy boots could make it go away.

So I did what Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said those of us who face such crises do. I railed at the gods. I offered up prayers I didn’t much believe in. I bargained with the universe. And then I became a statistic, too — one of the 43.5 million caregivers in the United States. I occupied uncomfortable seats in antiseptic waiting rooms. Every oncology visit, every PET scan lighting up like a Christmas tree at the cancer hotspots, every ambulance ride, it was all scary.

But I was Faking Brave. And I wondered if she was too.

Then again, she came from a long line of stubborn Slovak women. Her mother had bobbed her own hair like a flapper and pierced her own ears — earning her the wrath of my great-grandfather. But she — and my mom — were the type of women who never much cared what anyone thought of them. They were pragmatic, accepting of the curveballs life threw — even the devastating ones. When my father once cried, “Why you?” my mother’s response was an immediate, “Why not me?”

How I Faced My First Mammogram After Losing My Mother To Breast Cancer
Erica Orloff

Mom and I stared down chemotherapy and complications together. She lived with me, and I learned what an honor it was to help someone in their most vulnerable moments. She was confined to a wheelchair almost immediately because the cancer had spread to her bones. I’d wheel her to her tests in the hospital and tell the techs, “Take care of her. I only have one mother.” I was born to her. And she was mine. That one person who always believed in me.

She ended up inpatient in the hospital, so I roomed in with her. We’d sit up at midnight, eating those chocolate and vanilla ice cream cups with the little wooden spoon. Death was there in the room, too. I felt it stalking her. But we ate our ice cream and refused to give Death the satisfaction of even naming it.

Mom was determined to see my daughter (pictured below) go to her senior prom, and though she did, I don’t know that she ever doubted she would.

How I Faced My First Mammogram After Losing My Mother To Breast Cancer
Erica Orloff

True to her nature — that Slovak trait — to the very end, she never gave up. She died while I was holding her.

Suddenly, I was navigating the world without my best friend, without my mom, and without the one person who always believed I could do “it” — whatever “it” was. I was at a loss for how to go on. I was also now a woman with a first-degree relative with breast cancer — and my risk factor doubled the moment her cancer was found. As I looked at my own daughters — both young adult women — I wondered if we were all ticking time bombs.

After my mother died, I realized I was at least eight months late scheduling my annual mammogram — I’d been too consumed with being a caregiver to schedule it. This is the burden of women, I think. We are always the caregivers — 66 percent of caregivers in the United States are women — and often we are last on our own list. Logically, I should have scheduled it the moment I recognized I was late. But I was gripped by terror. What was lurking in that twisted spiral Watson and Crick discovered, that genetic staircase?

Still, I ignored my reminder card. Until I could feel her pushing me to call the breast center and make an appointment.

So there I was a month after her death. Shaking, I stripped naked from the waist up behind a curtain, cowboy boots on, and slid into a white robe with pink embroidery, shivering and waiting for my mammogram.

“Is there a family history of breast cancer?” The tech looked at me expectantly after she called me in.

I tried to say, “My mother died from it.” But my throat betrayed me.

So, I answered the question with a gut-jolting sob. The tech immediately comforted me until I could talk, handing me a box of tissues. I was clearly not the first woman to fall apart when asked that question, in that cold room, waiting to face a machine that might tell her she, too, had breast cancer. I belonged to a club I had no interest in joining — motherless women. More than that, motherless women made so by that one-in-eight statistic.

“Are you OK?” the tech asked as I blew my nose and tried to pull myself together.

And what was the truth? I wasn’t OK. I was collapsing under a weighted grief — the kind that drops you to your knees. No, not quite OK. But I was my mother’s daughter — stubborn, determined, and Faking Brave. I stood straighter as I stepped up to the machine.

I listened for a moment. And then I was sure I heard my mother whisper in my ear from someplace far away, “You are brave.”