Breast cancer awareness and grief–when seeing pink means seeing red, part 2

Prevention and blame — my second post of several breast cancer awareness experiences to keep in mind during October’s breast cancer awareness month … and beyond.

Scene One:

I was a child when Grandma died of cancer. I was sad, of course, and I’d only seen Granddaddy cry once before (at his brother’s funeral, when I was even younger). I remember his tears from that day more than my mom’s. Memories from then include crying, confusion, coordinated chaos — and one big burst of anger.

It happened not long after the family gathered at Granddaddy’s house following Grandma’s funeral. For several days, well-wishers and those bringing meals or offering condolences had come and gone, but I’d not paid much attention. (As an adult I’m ashamed that back then I was as upset by my older cousins’ distraught distraction as by Grandma’s death. I adored and idolized them, and since they were “visiting” — for the funeral — from out of state, I wanted them to play with me.)

From the room where I shadowed my cousins’ every move, I heard loud, angry voices. Of course, we dropped what we were doing and ran to see the commotion.

The nuances were lost on me, but over the years the details filled in as I heard varied accounts of what happened. Several adults clustered near the door, where Granddaddy — our soft-spoken, patient Granddaddy — yelled while shoving a woman out the door!

From what I later learned, the woman, an acquaintance of Grandma’s, had come to offer her services to the family. Well, one specific “service,” anyway.

Since Grandma’s death proved cancer ran in our family, the woman explained, she thought we’d be eager to buy cancer insurance policies from her.

Scant hours after Grandma’s funeral.

So, yeah, Granddaddy yelled and kicked — er, shoved — her out the door.


Scene Two:

Twenty years later, while Mom recovered from mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy, we had an encounter with a long-time friendly acquaintance. Everyone within that circle knew of her battle, so it was normal and appreciated when people inquired about her condition in the context of offering their support (mentioned prayers, in-person visits, dropped-off casseroles, etc.).

What we didn’t expect was one man’s crusading tirade.

He approached with a friendly smile and handshake. He asked how she was feeling (as tricky a question for someone fighting a deadly disease, I might add, as for someone living with grief).  Her response was somewhat noncommittal but positive, as usual. (She often made jokes about needing to wear a wig.)

Without preamble, the man stepped into her personal space and lectured her.

According to his uninvited rant:

all doctors were too greedy, too quick to slice into people for no good reason;

all pharmacies and drug manufacturers were only in business for the money and tailored their medications (including chemotherapy) to make people sicker so they’d have to buy more medicines;

all breast cancer was caused as much by wearing deodorant as by underwire bras …

[It’s a good thing this was during the mid ’90s. He’d probably have exploded had he heard about Turing’s recent drug price hike from $13 to $700+ per pill!]

Mom tried speaking up on behalf of her oncologist, a caring and compassionate doctor who fought hard for her. But this … this … person wouldn’t let her.

I can’t remember the details of how we got away from him. I do remember the fury I felt. How dare he attack her for seeking treatment!? How dare he attempt to undermine the course of care she’d carefully studied and sought out!?


If you can't say something nice, don't say anything!

When grief or illness encroach, be supportive in positive ways that aren’t intrusive. (Image by Teresa TL Bruce,

Scene Three:

I can’t count how many times this has played out in casual conversations with acquaintances in the decades since Mom’s diagnosis. Talk of family or health or October’s overwhelming pinkness often leads to mentioning my late mother’s breast cancer.

And then I’m asked a question so personal it’s inappropriate. “Have you been tested? What have you found out?”

The implication is that because my mother (and grandmother) had breast cancer, I must have rushed out to have myself tested for the BRCA gene mutations (which indicate an inherited predisposition toward some breast cancers — in about 5 percent of cases*).

The people who ask seem to think I should tell them all about it.

Others ask how often I do breast self exams and whether I’m up to date on mammograms. 

They mean well. I get that.

But it’s not their place to ask.

Breast cancer awareness month means people can initiate conversations about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. But it’s not open season to delve into women’s medical histories and decisions.

(Now go schedule a mammogram for yourself, or talk the women in your life into scheduling theirs.)



Breast cancer awareness and grief–when seeing pink means seeing red, part 1

This is the first post of several breast cancer awareness experiences to keep in mind during October’s breast cancer awareness month … and beyond.

Last month marked twenty years* since Mom died of breast cancer. More than thirty years ago her mother passed of the same; so did hers.

I’m therefore acutely aware of the importance of women getting regular mammograms and being vigilant about self-exams. That’s how Mom won more than three extra years with our family.

That’s why I got a mammogram — on the twentieth anniversary of Mom’s death, the week after the fifth anniversary of my husband’s.

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

It’s not something I look forward to every year. (Does anyone?) This year I put it off for months, until one day I finally called and made an appointment for the first available opening.

The irony of the timing didn’t hit me until that morning.

By the time I’d sat in the backed-up waiting room an hour after my scheduled appointment, my emotions were all ajumble.

By the second time the technician told me the equipment had a “technical problem” — and the procedure had to be repeated — my pertinent body parts felt all ajumble, too.

I cried — as much from emotional pain as from physical. When the technician assured me (bless her heart) that it would “only hurt for a few more seconds” (for the record, not true), she had no way to know the far deeper, longer-lasting pain came not from the contortions she inflicted on my body but from the losses the date itself smashed against my chest.

For a few moments, I plunged back into the mode of blurting my bereavement the same way I did during the early weeks (months, really) after my husband’s death.

To her credit, the woman tried to comfort me. She put an arm around me to give me a hug — but clad as I was only in the radiology center’s flimsy wraparound top, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. (In an oddly different way, the feeling reminded me how it felt when I was newly widowed and well-meaning men friends offered hugs — which at that raw time I didn’t want from any man I wasn’t related to.)

After the second round of images was taken (this time without technical difficulties), as my hand touched the doorknob, she offered a few well-intended words:  “You’ll be okay. You just have to get past it. Everybody has to die sometime.”


I’d just bared my soul (among other things) in front of this woman. I was crying because I missed my mom on the anniversary of her death to breast cancer, and missing my late husband, too. And she tried to make me feel better by reducing the validity of my grief? (Not to mention that she ignored my apprehension over the reason for the mammogram she’d just subjected me to.)

Yes, I saw red.

Please don’t say such things to those who are grieving! It’s true that everyone dies, but it’s not helpful or encouraging (or even nice) to make such losses seem everyday or expected or unimportant. 


*In an earlier post I rounded up the amount of time (see

Grief and Groceries, Part 1

Many of Mom’s cakes and casseroles never made it to our table. Instead, she took them to homes where sickness, injury or death touched a family. She never made a big deal out of it; she just did it — and in the process taught me it was the thing to do as I grew up and fed my family. Even as a little kid, I understood the practicality of bringing meals to people who were hurt or sick, but I didn’t understand (or think about) why she took food when someone died.

The beginnings of understanding came in a poignant moment when I stood in my parents’ kitchen surrounded by plates and bowls and platters of food. “So this is why we take food after a death …”  Two years earlier my husband and I’d moved our young family cross-country to care for Mom while Dad worked nights during her recovery from breast cancer. She’d held it off three years longer than the initial diagnosis predicted, but when tumors resurfaced — this time in her brain — we soon realized the cancer was terminal. Its speed left us bereft only two months into the projected six more we’d hoped to have with her.

We’d known it was coming, said our goodbyes, and were with her at the end. We’d been as prepared as anyone could have been, yet in an equally real sense, we weren’t prepared — not at all. The finality of death brought the unexpected shock of her loss to us all.

It is not possible (either physically or emotionally) to become truly “ready” to experience the visceral realities of new grief, even if you’ve experienced other losses before.

Mom’s absence filled my every thought. At that time I was pregnant with our youngest child (but Mom won’t get to meet her, and she’ll never know her grandma). Besides my concerns for Dad (How will he get along without Mom after 32 years together?), I worried for our two young daughters who were also upset by their grandmother’s death (They’ve lived most their lives with her — and now they’ve lost her, too). Although we needed the routine of mealtimes and bedtimes (I can’t sleep — Mom’s gone), I was too much in shock (because Mom was dead) to organize thoughts well enough to manage the what-seemed-complicated process of assembling PB&J sandwiches (like Mom taught me to make). In my newly grieving state of mind, preparing a hot meal (like Mom used to cook) was as unlikely as my bulging, pregnant body competing in a World Wrestling championship — and attempting it might have resulted in a bigger mess.

But I didn’t have to. Thoughtful, compassionate friends, neighbors, and church members brought meals. There were hot dinners and dishes that required only reheating (with time and temperature instructions clearly labeled); ready-to-eat cold cuts and salads; and fruit and veggie platters with dips. There were frozen meals “for later.” Countertops held homemade and store-bought breads and desserts (some made especially for my children), as well as candy and chips. Every brought-in item became “comfort food” in a time when comfort was sorely needed.

“Ohhh …” I thought. I actually nodded my head like a bobblehead doll. “Now I understand why we take food after a death.” It was as if the pencil-sketched idea suddenly became a full-color photograph. I vowed that, henceforth, I’d not only drop off such items, but I’d do so with more thought and thoughtfulness, more compassion in my cooking.

After my husband died suddenly, my framed print perception of “why we take meals after a death” became a life-sized hologram complete with Dolby surround sound and smell-a-vision. But not at first, not in those earliest hours of shock.

In the wee hours after his passing, I’d posted a message that said something like, “Our family needs your prayers. … Grieving.” I hadn’t even told who “we” were, much less that my husband had suddenly died (because that would have made it “real,” and I couldn’t do that). That morning there was a knock at my door. A friend stood there. She offered a hug, a condolence card signed by her and another friend, a Publix gift card, and a frozen entree. She said to throw it in the freezer for now, but then use it when I might need it later.

I thanked her and thought, “This is nice, but … why?” (Weeks later, when all was too quiet and in my widowed fog I’d forgotten to get groceries but needed to feed my daughter, I remembered their gift and understood why.)

That first day after his death, another couple dropped-off a deli platter of sandwich roll-ups, apologizing profusely that it was neither hot nor homemade, but when my college daughters arrived home for the funeral and none of us had consistent appetites, being able to reach in the fridge and grab a bite at a time was perfect.

With extended family coming into town, I deeply appreciated the post-funeral meal and extra dishes provided by friends and other church family. Leftovers helped feed everyone beyond that one day, and I was too exhausted and drained to prepare anything that required more than oven or microwave reheating.

Friends thought they were feeding our bodies — and they were — but more importantly they were feeding our souls with their practical demonstrations of concern.

Grief and Groceries, Part 2, lists additional practical ways you can help with food after a death.

Fireworks of Grief

July Fourth weekend, 1992. 

Their home phone rang as my parents walked back in the door after visiting Mom’s aunt over the holiday weekend. It was Mom’s doctor — not his staff — on the other end. “Where have you been? We’ve been calling for days. We’ve got you scheduled for surgery.”

Mom hadn’t told me about the biopsy — or even about the lump that prompted it. She hadn’t wanted me to worry. My first inclination of something wrong was when an uncle called to ask me if I’d heard the results. “No,” I’d assured him. “There’s nothing the matter. They’d have told me. You must be mistaken.”

Back in January she’d had her annual exam and mammogram. All was clear. In April she’d seen a small lump in the mirror (it was visible but not palpable) and she’d made an appointment. Her doctor recommended a biopsy. She had the biopsy and left town for the weekend.

The cancerous cells had already burst through all the lymph nodes.

Surgery, radiation, and chemo followed.

My husband and I moved our family from Arizona to Florida to care for her as she recovered while Dad continued working nights. She did well and returned to work.

20150704_multiburst fireworks

photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

July Fourth, 1995, after watching the fireworks, we walked in the door and found Mom (who’d stayed home with a slight headache) slumped against the hallway. It was the first visible symptom that breast cancer had resurfaced, this time in her brain and spinal column.

The following week we learned it was terminal.

It’s been 19 years since that second devastating Independence Day. In the intervening years our family sometimes rekindled the positive traditions of early times. After my husband’s illness and death, though, the redoubling of grief made — still makes — the Fourth (like most widowed holidays) harder to manage than it used to be.

It’s not easy to construct new traditions. It’s not easy to “get over” grief when you miss loved ones who “should” be sharing special days. Please be patient with your grieving friends. Invite the bereaved to join you in your celebrations. Ask them about the traditions they cherish. Acknowledge your awareness of them, let them know they are not forgotten, even though they may be alone in their loneliness on Independence Day and other holidays.