How to Survive Cancer Diagnosis at 34 and Live to be 75? Fight to Win!

My mom just turned 75.

Big deal.

But, in her case it actually is a big deal. A really big deal.

When mom was just 34 years and the mother of five young children she was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma. Her sister had died one year earlier of ocular melanoma leaving behind seven children.

For the first time ever we asked mom what she actually did when she was diagnosed? Her response was something she’d never told anyone -not even my dad: upon hearing the diagnosis at Rush PSL Hospital, she got in her car, drove to  the Michigan Avenue area and parked. Then she walked. And walked. And walked. For hours. She told us she needed to be near hustle and bustle but she needed to “space out” and process what she knew: she had cancer. She had a husband who traveled frequently (remember, this is the 70’s when dads worked and moms stayed home.) She knew one thing: she was determined not to leave my dad to fend for himself with five young kids and she was going to fight it. Even more, she was going to fight to win.

She ended up having over 13 more diagnoses of melanoma; she lost her hair several different times with several different treatments; one year she was part of an experimental program  at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda taking high dose Interleukin 2 (to even be  accepted into that protocol one needed to be in the 5% survival rate pool of candidates.) She suffers from terrible lymphedema. In any case – she is still here.

I do not think I have ever heard her complain about her cancer. Ever. Instead, she grabbed life. She raced as fast as she could – in everything: solving problems, starting companies, cooking dinner, bringing meals to a newly diagnosed friend, mastering bridge hands, researching the environment, etc. Sometimes she was and is SO far ahead of the curve that we would laugh at her silly research (soy, partially hydrogenated, pesticides, etc). Then, when hindsight became 20/20 we’d  recognize that she was right all along. She can do about a hundred things at the same time: cook dinner, watch little babies, run the laundry, paint a painting and trade stocks without missing a beat. She has never wasted a minute.

While she said she never had a clear answer that day while walking the streets of Chicago hours on end merely to clear her head, over the years she knew one thing: she wanted her children to be independent. That we are. All five of us. While nothing is ever perfect, as mom frequently said, “if life gives you lemons make lemonade.”  She did the best she could. What I especially admire though is that in surviving cancer she chose to make a mad dash to the finish line. She’s still racing ahead and showing those around her the value of fighting to win.