Love Strength Hope

SurvivorIt’s the call no one ever wants to receive; the one bearing bad news that changes everything forever.



In early October, 2010, my physician phoned our home in Sydney and requested that I come into his office the next morning. He wouldn’t tell me why, only to be there on time.

I knew what it was about; I had found a lump in my breast only three weeks earlier and had undergone a mammogram a few days later. My mind raced in all directions for the rest of the day, mostly towards a worse-case scenario.

Both my Mun and my older sister Anne had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous decade. While my sister survived, my mother did not, succumbing in April of 2007. Her final days were painful and unpleasant, although she carried herself with great dignity until her last breath. She was only 61.

Anne and I were both diagnosed at the age of 34, with Anne’s diagnosis coming in 2008. Too soon, we thought, but statistics show that more young women are afflicted by breast cancer each year around the world.

We each had a breast removed, mine on the left and hers on the right. Today we joke that between the two of us we still have a good pair left. It wasn’t funny at the time, however, especially with the loss of our mother still so fresh.

Early detection likely saved us each further complications, and we are both still screened regularly, as are our two younger sisters. All of us, even my once steady father, feel anxious about each test result. It is as if we are waiting for a ticking time bomb to go off. Gratefully, we are all still here.

Towards the end of my mother’s life, when it became clear that she was not going to make it, relatives gathered at my parents’ home from across Australia. Every bed, couch and cot was full, with siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles all moving in to share in the caregiving. Even in this bitter milieu, the house had never been so alive.

According to Dad, that was the way things were done when he was a child in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He has shared stories with us about how his grandparents lived with his family until they passed, and how kin would come from across Ireland, and from as far away as London, to share in the grieving. Apparently, after the deceased was laid to rest, many stayed for weeks afterwards to help with household duties and offer comfort.

It was like that when Mum passed.

While she was born in Australia, both sets of her grandparents had arrived from Ireland years earlier looking for a better life. Like most of Irish descent, many in our family still practice ancient customs, including those that took place at my mother’s wake; her body was washed, laid out on a small bed in the back room and a small crucifix and rosary beads placed in her hands. Sheets were hung over the bed, pipes filled with tobacco, glasses filled, candles lit, clocks stopped and mirrors turned towards the wall as mourners wept and wailed openly. Given the drama of those three days, the actual funeral seemed almost a letdown.

After the service, some relatives returned to their lives, while others stayed on in support. In particular, my Aunt Bridgit and Aunt Theresa were of great comfort, most often simply lending a much needed ear to myself, my sisters and my father over a cup of tea.

When Anne was diagnosed, they were the first to arrive and the last to leave, and it was the same when I went through my own treatment two years later.

Although it is easy today to dismiss our seemingly outdated Irish traditions, there is something to be said for keeping them alive. If anything, what I witnessed at my mother’s wake, and everything that I have experienced since then, has only served to strengthen my sense of belonging, bringing me back to my roots, and reaffirming the healing power of my heritage.

Today, I no longer jump when the phone rings, as it is usually a relative checking up on us. And while some of them are a little longwinded (sorry Uncle Kevin!), I am always grateful that I am still here to take their call.

By Kelly A