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I was afforded the privilege last Tuesday to speak at a candlelight service in City Hall Park marking the start of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Pink bows and flags in the park and along Main Street offer a reminder of the millions of women, and their families, who are affected by breast cancer, of the importance of yearly mammograms and the need for ongoing breast-cancer research.
Here's an edited version of my remarks, which share my mother's experience with breast cancer and the impact it had, and continues to have, on our family.
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It was about this time of year, eight years ago, when my mother, Mary, was diagnosed with breast cancer, forever changing her life and those of her husband and five children.
After four years of working at The News, from 1997 to December 2000, I had left my job to resume my studies for the priesthood. I spent the summer of 2001 working at a parish in Evansville before enrolling in St. Meinrad that fall. Things were going well two months into the school year and I enjoyed stopping in at home once or twice each week to help with chores on the farm or to enjoy a home-cooked meal. I stopped by one Tuesday evening in mid-October. Mom was drying dishes at the sink and after offering me a bite to eat, asked me to sit down. I knew immediately something was wrong. There, across the kitchen table, my mom told me she had found a lump in her breast. A biopsy showed that it was cancerous.
I'd never had such a large lump in my throat, and I didn't know what to say. Never before had I been so scared ee for my mom most of all, but also the rest of my family. Fathers may be the heads of their families, but mothers are their hearts and my mother was certainly the heart of ours, even with five grown children and several grandchildren.
Struggling with the unknowns wasn't easy and my mom didn't have the answers to all the questions I asked that evening. She didn't know if and how far the cancer had spread or what her treatment options would be. I drove the 10 miles from New Boston to Saint Meinrad that evening fearing the worst. Back at school, I went directly to the chapel and prayed, perhaps more intently than I ever had before, or since.
The following weeks and months were not easy. Mom underwent surgery to remove the lump in her breast shortly before Thanksgiving in 2001. Scans and examinations of the lymph nodes removed during the surgery showed that the cancer had not spread, but she agreed with her oncologist's recommendation to undergo chemotherapy.
My mother is a strong and tough farmwoman and someone not prone to tears. But she cried when she began losing her hair and felt uneasy, I'm sure, when she first appeared to children and grandchildren with a handkerchief over her head.
But grandkids still ran into her open arms and Mom never cared when they tugged at her blue or red head-coverings to get a peak underneath.
There would be plenty more tears as one round of chemo after another left her not only physically sick but mentally worn. My mother was very seldom ill while I and my siblings grew up, so having her so sick for days at a time was difficult to take. But Mom bounced back after each round and truly showed all of us the depth of her spirit. She refused to let the cancer rob her of everyday life or her family.
"Don't worry about me. I'll be OK," she told me dozens of times after I asked her how she felt.
Mom never missed weekly Mass once, even when she felt terrible, and genuinely worried that her family was fretting too much about her. She continued to dote on young grandchildren and posed with them in photos planting tulip bulbs late that fall.
Mom was confident she would see them bloom in spring. However, I have no doubt my mother knew cancer might take her life. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, she wrote letters to her children that Christmas and placed them in the cedar chest that holds her other small treasures, from school artwork made 20 years ago to some of the columns I write for Monday's paper. She wanted us to open the letters when she died and only told us about them several months later.
By early spring, Mom was done with her last round of chemo and her hair began to re-grow. Finally, she underwent radiation treatments that left her tired but marked the end of her battle. Then there were the tests, every few months at first, then twice a year and now annually, to ensure her cancer had not returned.
I dreaded each visit for bloodwork, fearful that the cancer would be back. I still worry some, even though she tells me not to.
Thankfully, my mother remains cancer free nearly seven years after that terrifying evening when she sat me down at the kitchen table. She's an example of how far cancer treatment has come and the courage so many women who are cancer survivors offer the rest of us. Her story is also a reminder of the need for yearly mammograms. The lump my mom found in her breast might have been detected earlier had she undergone a mammogram. She now goes in for hers every spring.
If there is any message I can offer, it is one of holding on to courage and hope, even in the face of pain, sickness, uncertainty and the fear of dying and leaving behind those we love.
Cancer is a devastating disease, but it ironically brings out the best in us. Hard times often do.
This month, as we drive, walk or bicycle past these pink ribbons and flags, let's remember the people who have battled cancer, those who have fought bravely to the end and those who are still with us. Let's honor their memories and promise not to give up on promoting early diagnosis and continued research into better ways of fighting cancer and lessening the chances of its recurrence.
My mother was fortunate to have a family to support her fight against breast cancer. But not everyone is as lucky. As a community we need to be there for those who battle this disease alone, at home, or in nursing homes and hospitals.
No one should fight cancer or any other life-threatening disease by themselves.
Perhaps the most important lesson my mother's battle with cancer has taught me, is to treasure every day, to fully use the time we have together and to remember always that we're called by God to care for each other, as individuals and as communities.