According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The diagnosis of cancer is a family experience that changes the lives of all its members, bringing an immense amount of stress and many challenging situations.”
Here are the stories of three families and their responses when breast cancer came calling.
For Harry McMillan, when his wife’s routine breast lump removal unexpectedly disclosed a tiny hidden cancerous tumor, he reacted with shock and disbelief – but feelings of helplessness were close behind. For more than 50 years, McMillan has taken seriously his role of family protector and provider. But back then, Cathy, the person he loved most in the whole world, was being attacked, and he could do nothing to stop the invasive onslaught.
However, there were other things he could tackle, including personally notifying the couples’ two adult sons, who have always been very close to their mother. There were also the endless consultations and appointments.
“I struggled with seeing her being stuck and prodded, and that was very emotional, but I never missed a one of them,” he reminisced. “Cathy says that I was also supportive by doing things around the house when she wasn’t able to and hiding her car keys so she couldn’t slip off and go to work when she needed to stay home.”
Cathy McMillan is a strong woman who does not cry or give in to her emotions easily. For her husband, it felt like she truly did not need his support as much as some women might in this circumstance. Her refusal to lose hope, her faith and her perseverance kept despair at bay, even during the difficult times. When the thought of losing his beloved wife elbowed its way into his mind, McMillan responded by sending up prayers on her behalf.
It’s been 15 years, and Cathy is now well past the five-year and 10-year survivor anniversaries. For Harry McMillan, the experience has made him realize, “When you get wrapped up in daily living, you can forget what is important, and an experience like this brings you back to Earth real quick.”
Harmon Kerrison was only 14 when her carefree, self-absorbed teenage world suddenly crumbled. It was at a typical family dinner where she noticed the unusual sadness in the eyes of her parents as her mom announced to her and her older sister, Legare, that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
However, their mom, Hunter Kerrison, was not one to wallow in self-pity or to let her family fall into that place. She quickly determined that getting an excellent medical team was the most important step. With her entire professional life devoted to health care, she knew exactly who to call upon for the very best treatment protocols.
For Harmon, the Kerrison family dynamics suddenly changed. She remembers, “I disconnected from my personal, everyday activities – which no longer seemed as important – to spend time with my mom.” Some days seemed like being on an emotional roller coaster: “The days when Mom came home in severe pain and I could hear her crying even though she tried to hide it, were the worst. Before, I always wanted to be out of the house with my friends doing my own thing, but now that felt selfish, and I wanted to be with my mom, doing things together with her instead.”
While the initial surgery was stressful, Harmon mistakenly assumed the worst was over. The beginning of chemotherapy with the characteristic hair loss, nausea and other side effects was a second, unanticipated battle. Although her mother doggedly continued to work and tried to keep the family routines as normal as possible, the effects of chemo challenged her self-sufficiency and her ability to maintain the professional attractiveness that her daughters were so accustomed to seeing. Observing her vulnerability was a new and painful experience.
Harmon recently graduated from high school and is optimistically looking forward to majoring in architectural studies as a freshman at Tulane.
“I am changed. I am much more mindful of life and of setting the right priorities,” she said. “I feel more mature. My mother and I did so many fun things together during her battle with cancer that our relationship is much stronger and more adult-to-adult now, but I do sometimes worry about what if it comes back.”
If she were to advise other teens dealing with a parent with cancer, she would encourage them to get deeply involved and go to appointments and treatments, even if that means pushing the boundaries a little. The times she devoted to her mom have enriched their relationship, and for this young woman, family is now a top priority.
Dennis Simon, a naval officer and then a submarine navigator, was deployed at sea when his commanding officer decrypted a life-changing, urgent message about his wife, Patricia. She was only 33, but she had been diagnosed with breast cancer – the same hideous disease that had killed her mother at 42.
Simon remembered feeling overwhelmed. What if she did not survive? What if he had to raise their two young sons without her? What about his career with the Navy? He battled these fears as he flew home on the very next flight available from Andros Island and met her right before her surgery. All he could do was take one day at a time.
Like Harry McMillan, Simon found his personal faith to be a comfort and trusted that God would help him handle this time of family crisis. A particularly difficult moment occurred when Patricia, typical of so many women with breast cancer, finally voiced her fears that her husband’s love for her would be diminished because of her breast surgery. Simon gifted her with the perfect answer when he said, “You know, I’ve always been a leg man, and your legs are perfect!” He and their sons, Scott and Christopher, became the bearers of hope and laughter, especially during those difficult days when it was hard for Patricia to find it for herself.
The fear of returning cancer is very real for all cancer survivors and their families. While 90% of those with nonmetastatic invasive breast cancer remain cancer-free at the five-year mark and 84% are still free at the 10-year anniversary, Patricia Simon has been part of the minority who has had to face a rematch. It has been six years since she won her latest battle with uterine cancer. Throughout each rough spot, Dennis Simon has operated on the simple principle of: “Love your wife and support her. Life is a highway – there are many reasons to turn into the slower lanes or even stop at rest stops, but the important thing is to get to your destination.” With his ever-abundant supply of love, hope and laughter, he continues to help navigate the Simon family safely in their life journey together.
Currently, 3.8 million women in the United States are battling breast cancer, and the numbers are increasing by about 0.5% each year. The importance of the support of family members can not be underestimated. In sharing their stories, Harry McMillan, Harmon Kerrison and Dennis Simon illustrate how tough families can go through tough times and emerge even stronger than they were before cancer reared its ugly head.
By Janet E. Perrigo