Erin Pettersen
Cancer: All the Cool Kids are Doing It

My mom says that cancer turned her into a bitch.

    For eighteen years it was clear to me that my parents were invincible. Death was reserved for grandparents and pets. That's why you had grandparents and pets, so you could love and appreciate them and then cope with their loss, mourn them and then learn some important life lessons. The concept of old age was easy to understand because you could actually see it. Old people had wrinkles and gray hair. Sometimes they used canes, walkers or wheelchairs and sometimes they had fake teeth. Old people liked to watch golf on TV, drink scotch, park in handicapped spots and spill jam on their cardigans. Old women knitted or played the piano and old men mumbled "god dammit" and "Jesus Christ," put ketchup on everything and snored. For a kid, it is easy to conceptualize death coming after old age. Grandparents were old and old people die.

    Parents, on the other hand, aren't old. They are young, healthy and invincible. They are these things because they have to be. They have to raise their children and take care of them, teach them, feed them, house them, love them and be alive for them. They have to be the bucking bronco, the basketball coach, the audience, the chauffer and the storyteller. The only problem is, parents aren't actually invincible. They are vulnerable and fragile. They are human. I was eighteen when I realized my mother's mortality.

    I left for a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School in late September. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in early October and began chemotherapy almost immediately. Every other Monday my parents would sit for a few hours in the hospital while the poisonous medicine tried to penetrate her disease. While she fought the side effects of chemo and tried to maintain her composure as an elementary school teacher, I backpacked through the breathtaking Gila mountain range, climbed hundreds of feet of granite and kayaked the neon waters of Baja. One Monday in November, my journal entry reflected on the stars of dawn fading with the rising sun as I paddled peacefully alongside 25 km of the Mexican coastline. I saw dolphins that day, got stung by a jellyfish on my ankle and felt homesick for my friend Will. My mom spent that afternoon sleeping away the reality of her illness. I would remain oblivious to her condition for another month.


    After fifteen hours of travel I arrived at the Sea-Tac airport. The early December Seattle rain imitated the tears I had been crying all day, after an abrupt departure from the friends I would never see again. Eighty-five days in the wilderness had changed me physically, emotionally and mentally and I was terrified of how my family would react. We shared a long embrace at the bottom of the escalator near the baggage claim. I commented that my mom's hair looked different and tried hide my nervous tremble. At home I ate an English muffin while my dad awkwardly took photos of my first night back. I admired my new bed sheets and the bouquet of flowers on my nightstand and tried to re-acclimate myself to the room I had lived in for 18 years.

    As I sat on the edge of my bed and listened to my parents explain what cancer was, how chemotherapy worked and the reality of something called ‘stage two,' I tried not to imagine my life without a mother. I pressed my cheek against her breast, the very breast that had once fed me as an infant and that now threatened to break the lifelong bond I shared with her, and sobbed. I confessed that I wasn't ready for my mom to take off her wig and that I needed to let things marinate for a few days before seeing her bald. A microscopic division of cells had pulled off the cloak of invincibility and revealed the vulnerability inherent in all of us. Just as wrinkles and walkers had convinced me of old age, my mom's bald head and missing eyebrows convinced me of cancer. I could see and feel the repercussions of her sickness every time I looked at her. There was no denying the reality of her health, and so with time I was able to understand her ability to die, something that had never seemed possible before.

    When I woke up this morning I had an email from my mom about my taxes. After explaining one of the most dreaded aspects of adulthood to me and providing instructions on how to correctly sign some papers she moved on to a more lighthearted topic: nipples. "Things went well with the nipple making," she began, "so now all I have left are the tattoos. I'll be glad to be done with all this. The doctor asked me what size I wanted the nipples to be and I told him I just wanted some but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life looking cold or aroused". After assuring the plastic surgeon that the "hey sailor" look wasn't for her she underwent the second-to-last step in the reconstruction process.

    With the birth of cancer came the death of immortality. I suppose, in honor of the feminist, breast cancer lingo, I should say that my mom kicked cancer's ass. Cancer stripped her of her hair, both her breasts and the invincible superpowers of motherhood. But after sixteen weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, six months of chest expanders, breast implants and a new set of fake nipples, she is only one minor operation away from being back to normal. Every morning she gets up with a full head of hair, a slightly fuller cup size and embraces her vitality. She works hard, savors the little things and doesn't take shit from anyone.

    Immortality may have died but the strength that replaced it will live forever. That strength is real. It isn't worn on an invisible cloak, it doesn't exist in the imagination of a 10-year-old and it will survive in the memories and the DNA of future generations. On December 13, 2004 I faced the loss of a concept I had spent my life believing. Three years later, I embrace that loss openly and feel inspired by what replaced it.