Finding Out

Written by: Eesha Chona

Written on: September 25, 2014 

“The tests were positive.”

After my dad gave a tortuous explanation, I blankly stared at him as if he spoke a foreign language. This wasn’t suppose to happen to my family… it just happens to other people’s families. So… this can’t be real, right?

I glanced towards my mother as she lifelessly stared out the window and my brother who seemed like a motionless statue. I kept looking at everyone, but no one spoke. The silence permeated the house and I could hear my neighbors outside lock their car and laugh about the movie they just watched, realizing that all the happiness in my family has been taken away forever, and I probably wouldn't experience that giggling ever again.

I looked up at my mother and recalled our life just a few months ago, when she carelessly travelled to Chicago to watch my brother debate. When I was planning my 15th birthday party. When my friends and I were arranging to meet each other during winter break. When our whole family was planning a vacation to de-stress.

How could one test result turn our lives upside down? Rather than having a vacation during break, it’ll be a stressful time to make as many memories as we can together while we still are able to. 

I began to wonder how my mother kept all of this to herself for so long. Why would she do that? Our relationship is like a best friendship. Why didn’t she share her sorrows? But more importantly… why didn’t I notice them? Was I really caught up in my own life this whole time?

I glanced towards my brother and father. Would it just be us three after next month? I just turned 15, and now is probably the time I need my mother the most. Will she be here for my 16th birthday?

Not knowing how to respond, I stood up, fled to my room, locked my door, and sat down to ponder. Sitting down on my bed, I just wondered: what really is breast cancer? 


Memories

Written by: Eesha Chona 

Written on: October 16, 2014 

Is this difficult time going to be the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?  

We drove to Aptos Beach- my mother’s favorite relaxation spot. While it was the same villa we always requested, number 411, it wasn’t the same. While the beach was beautiful, the water wasn’t the peaceful cerulean blue that I fondly remembered, the breeze not as tranquil, nor the sand as fun to play in. Rather, the waves were more forceful, the wind cold, and the sand scratchy. Was this foreshadowing of what was yet to come? Will my mother be the same person after surgery? Will she continue to be my over- paranoid, protective, caring mother?

 My mother excitedly approached me to go to the store with her to purchase our fun foods: popcorn, ingredients for smores, and hot chocolate for our movie nights. We ended up walking to the store and talking about how much we both liked the feeling of serenity that the beach gave us. This was the first time my mom and I had been completely alone since I found out she had cancer. Why didn’t I bring up the topic? Why didn’t I tell her how I felt… how I couldn’t lose her? Instead I just told her I was craving orange juice.

 When I was little, probably around the age of five, my mom and I would always go shopping together. October was always my favorite- not because of Halloween or candy, but because everything was pink. Since pink was our favorite color (and still is), we would zealously buy everything pink- from pink frying pans, pink mugs, pink clothes, pink shoes, to literally pink everything.  I never really understood why it was a pink frenzy or what the purpose of it was, until my mother told me a few years later. Even then, I didn’t make much of it because breast cancer never directly impacted me… that was until now.

 Why had I been in such a hurry to grow up? I wished I could turn back the clock and pay more attention to my mother when I was little. I was a very adventurous, daring, and overly confident child. I always wanted to be grown up and independent. During one of our family movie nights, my brother and I disagreed on the chosen film, and I had a tantrum. It ended up escalating into me boldly stating that I would move out and find a new family. Using reverse psychology, my mother didn't argue with me, and just said “okay.” So, I packed my small bag with six Dasani water bottles, one box of pop tarts, and princess dress up clothes, and I walked outside. After my mother closed the front door, I sat down… and I cried. I rang the doorbell, and inside I found my mom crying too. I ran in and hugged her, promising to never leave her again. The thing is… she never promised me that.  


Surgery

Written by: Eesha Chona

written on: November 19, 2014 

After my dad unequivocally stated that I may not, under any circumstances, skip school today, I just ignored whatever else he continued saying.  Of course, he would never understand.

 I glanced towards my brother who had a masked expression on his face and wondered if he wanted to skip school today as well. But who would want to go to school when their mother is undergoing a 14-hour surgery at that same time?  Shouldn’t we, her children, be there with her?

 I walked outside and waited for my brother to unlock the car door. It seemed odd that the weather forecast reported a breezy, sunny, mid-70s day, when all I could notice were the dark, murky clouds. Ironically, it was a Monday- the start of a new week, or for us perhaps another new chapter in our now unpredictable lives. Rather than us happily listening to our fun music during our drive, I could only hear the humming of the wheels and our backpacks jiggling in the backseat. I felt claustrophobic and the car was closing in on me.  I was suffocating and a sense of panic was building.  I couldn’t remember what I had 1st period, if I did my homework, what tests were scheduled today, or even if I had to stay afterschool for Lacrosse practice.

 My mother probably changed into a gown by now and was being taken to her operating room. It is 7:45 and in 15 minutes her surgery will begin, coincidentally right when school begins for me. I am sure she is just as scared as me.  I wish I could give her one more hug, as I don’t even know if I will see her again.

 We arrive at school and luckily my friends are there to follow to class.  I have Study of Theater, which makes me think this entire day will be a stage for me to act on as normal.  I wonder why I can’t just go home and doze off. I know my mom wanted me to go to school today so that my friends distract me from overthinking and worrying.  My brother is with his friends too, but texting continually to check on me. However, while I am here getting support from my friends and brother, who is supporting my mom? 

 The day went on in slow motion, but my mind fast-forwarded a couple of months. I imagined the end of a school day and me running to the loading zone to see my mom, all healed and normal after surgery, smiling from her car and anticipating stories of my day. Then, once we got home, we would watch our TV show, Scandal, and drink tea. The school bell then rings, taking me out of my fantasy and reminding me it is exactly 8:00 am and my mother’s breast cancer surgery has just commenced.  


Post-Surgery 

written by: Eesha Chona

written on: January 23, 2015

It’s mid-winter but feels like spring! My grandmother is waiting in my mother’s car to pick me up. It’s the end of January and my mom has already missed the start of my 2nd semester of freshman year. When I sit down, my grandma asks if I prefer to stop somewhere on the way home. I just think for a second and realize that there is no way I would delay going home, even by a few seconds. My mom was discharged from the hospital today, and I’ve been anticipating this moment for 14 days, 7 hours and 4 minutes, to be exact- basically since the day of her surgery.  I keep wondering if she will be a different person after her surgery – not just during recovery, but forever.

I went running inside the house before the car was off and rushed in to see my mom, but I saw the bedroom door closed. I was told she was resting since she over-exerted herself just by coming home.  How could a drive home be tiring?  I was already so impatient just to get a glimpse of her and now I had to wait even longer. Sigh! I tiptoed to my room to change and finished the special welcome home card I made for her.  A few moments later, there was a knock on my door.

After two weeks… I finally saw my mom. But she didn’t look like she used to.  She was pale, hunched over like a “C,” and used a rolling walker to come down the hall.  Tears filled my eyes as I saw her struggle to get on my chair while trying to smile with the same old sparkle in my eyes that used to be in hers.  Her voice was faint, but it was really her- only in a different body. That night, I completed zero schoolwork. I couldn’t focus because mom was finally back but she was so frail. I was afraid to hug her, because I thought I would break her. She was obviously in so much pain and had trouble just getting up or laying down.

As weeks went on, my mom became stronger and more ambulatory.  She always wore these huge, grandma-looking robes, and little did I know she was only doing that to hide multiple tubes that were draining liquid from her body – post-surgical devices.  She never complained about any discomfort to me or my brother, but I could see it in her body language and deep in her eyes.  I am sure she thought she was fooling us to protect us so we wouldn’t worry or be scared, but I learned by the way she took faster breaths while moving.  Such an overprotective mom, still trying to shield us from any sorrow when she is the one needing the help.

Eventually over the next few weeks, we ended up with a daily routine. I took time to do fun things to help care for her—rituals that I will cherish forever.  I loved combing and braiding her hair, making her favorite tea for “in bed” tea parties, creating photo houses and collages to cheer her up, listening to happy music together, and playing board games.  While doing so, we would talk about our respective days and gossip about anything and everything. It was like old times, except I felt like I was the “mother” nurturing her and easing her fears and pain. I felt like I was seeing her as never before: a scared little girl who needed help too.

I never felt this way before. My mom and I were always really close, and I could always talk to her about anything. She made our relationship that way since day one.  However, after surviving through the thoughts of losing her, my whole perspective towards her changed—a loss of innocence, so to speak, as I matured from being an idealist to a realist.  Life is not perfect and breast cancer is not pink and rosy!  My mom became my priority. I preferred spending a Friday night with her, rather than going to a sleepover with all my friends, or staying home to see a movie with her instead of a school dance.  I didn’t mind her seeing my text messages or emails anymore and loved her insight on my day-to-day school drama.  I gained a newfound respect for life and living every moment.

While this situation was something I would never want to re-live or celebrate, I remained optimistic. Yes, breast cancer is awful and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, yet I was thankful for this horrific experience as it created a “superglue” between me and my mother.  We were already very close but we became a part of each other like I could never have imagined. Now it is a matter of waiting for the final pathology from the lab.  Each day feels like I am holding my breath, dreading that another calamity may be brewing.  Will there be a chance that she needs more surgery? Will she need chemotherapy and lose her hair? Or will we be given months to say goodbye?


Day of pathology 

written by: eesha chona

written on: February 27, 2o15

February 20, 2013. The day of my mom and dad’s anniversary–the day couples are supposed to celebrate the love and future of their family. Ironically, it was the very day that determined the future of our family.

It has been six weeks since my mother’s surgery, and I couldn’t imagine going through the dark days of possibly losing her again. Everyday I awoke knowing my mom was downstairs getting back into her routine and I ran down happily anticipating our daily sourdough toast and her unique masala chai tea. That day I woke up early to surprise my parents with breakfast for their anniversary-only to hear my mother and father whispering. Initially, I thought they were making plans for an anniversary party, so I just screamed “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!!” They jumped a little bit and looked to me with fear, thinking I had overheard them. I then asked them why they were so startled, and my dad walked over to me, sat down, and blatantly stated:

“Eeshee, Mama finds out today how bad the cancer is and what further therapy is needed.”

My mom had a “fake” smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and laughingly assured me it was nothing to worry. I slowly walked to her with a perplexed expression on my face and searched her eyes. I sat on her lap and just held her hand wishing her to trust me enough to confide in me. Why do parents think we children can’t understand their feelings or perceive their fear? No amount of smiling or laughing changes the underlying fact that she had cancer and we would soon learn details of her prognosis: a bitter, life-changing reality.

I stayed home that day, refusing to be bullied into going to school when all I could think about was what my parents would undergo at the cancer center. My mom may end up needing radiation treatments or chemotherapy that could last for months! Would she lose her hair and wear a wig? Where would we find a wig? No one could possibly understand my insecurities regarding my family’s future, so how could everyone expect that I face my friends and teachers with a painful fake smile when I only wanted to cry.

The day unfolded with me and Grammy looking at old photos–re-living the past 19 years of my parents wedded life. The same annoying questions continually surfaced in my mind with the same dead silence- why my mom, why us, why me? While I sat on the couch, I couldn’t see through my tears. It had to be a bad sign that they had been gone more than 3 hours. Maybe the cancer came back and she was being re-admitted for more surgery! I wish I had hugged her one more time.

Finally, my cell phone rang with the special ringtone reserved only for calls from my mom’s phone: peaceful harp chords. I heard my dad’s strong voice, “Eeshee, which restaurant would you like to celebrate at tonight?” I finally took a deep breath, not knowing I had been holding it all this time.


Tears without fears

written by: eesha chona

written on: march 30, 2015

Spring Break!  Beaches, movies, shopping!  A full week to unwind from the pressure of tests, homework and waking up at 6:37 am everyday. A time to relax and spend time with friends…

But which friends?  What happened to my normal school routine in the past 3 months?  I recall school starting with gossiping before the bell, walking with my best friends to every class, and having buddies as partners for projects.  School days were full of giggles, smiles, playing “pig” in basketball, and staying after school just to hang out and catch up with everyone.

Now, I go early every morning to meet teachers and catch up on work. Although my friends are around, either I am not caught up on the latest gossip due to my being in my own world for three months or I walk alone in a daze to classes and study during breaks.  When lunchtime was once the center of my day sitting at a table with ten to fifteen best buds, it’s now spent grabbing a sandwich on my way to my new home: the library. Rather than walking to Starbucks for my usual passion iced tea lemonade and pumpkin bread after school with the gang, I make up tests.

What happened to my life?  Nothing is the same anymore: not home, school, or even friends.  Gone are the lazy days lying in the grass talking about the next dance, our next boy crush or even the new fashion. Although my friends are with me, they aren’t. I needed more than the artificial and superficial conversations of high school. How could I gossip about “fun” things when my life had dramatically changed so? I tried confiding with my BFFs but with little relief. As much as they all listened in an effort to help, I knew they had busy lives too. And lets be real, no teen wants to hear about cancer and hospitals all the time.  I loved that they were supportive in their own ways, but how many 15 year olds could fully understand the gravity of my situation.  No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I was on the outside looking in: watching everyone go on with their lives while I cried on the sidelines at the unfairness of it all.

Luckily, over the many weeks in the library and classrooms, I started noticing a fresh set of familiar faces: old acquaintances. These “acquaintances” became my lifeline, my new brothers and sisters.  These very individuals noticed my grief, my dark circles, and my newfound insecurities.  They supported without judging, helped without asking and listened without me talking – they just understood the silence of my fears.  My new “siblings” put me above gossip or going out.  Interestingly, they each had a story similar to mine: a parent, aunt, or sibling with a life altering illnesses. We all had an invisible bond that drew us to one another.  I was blessed that my journey brought me to them and my enhancement of my circle of friends.  And yes, I still see my BFFs and hug them and gossip, but with the mutual understanding of limits of what is comfortable; however, my new confidants had no such boundaries, as we could talk about something as simple as prepping for a debate tournament or something as fearsome as death from cancer.

Spring Break may symbolize vacations and parties for most teens, but to me it was a fresh look at my life and the awakening of a greater understanding of friendship: gossiping sleepovers, and going out are nothing without respect, trust, support and selflessness – even if it’s not “fun” all the time.  And for each tear I had shed, I regained each ounce of my self-confidence 10 fold.  Spirit Week is on the horizon, and though I may not have been ready to indulge like before, I had overcome many of my insecurities to be my true self without hiding behind an illusion. Nowadays, when I see my best buds, we smile, say hi, and even quickly chat, all of us knowing that I have a new life, a new coterie, and a new reality.


Growing pains and gains 

written on: july 27, 2015

written by: eesha chona

“Eesha! We’re leaving for the gym in 2 minutes – come soon!”

And thus, every Saturday began with our daily car ride in the nice, warm, blue skies to the gym, followed by a hot, healthy breakfast. That was the routine on weekends. Exercise on weekdays was afterschool at 5 pm. Initially I thought it would take away crucial time for homework, but my parents kept telling me exercising would keep my body and mind healthy, and if I didn’t make time now, I would repent later. What I never expected was the surge of energy I would feel after a workout. Not only did I look and feel better, but I became more efficient with homework and did better in school! The best part of our weekly schedule was Fridays: pizza and movie night! This was the one night of the week when all of us put our work aside and focused on making homemade pizza with our favorite tunes blasting in the background and just relaxing together—no computers, no work, no social media—only talking and bonding over popcorn and watching a fun movie.

That was my weekly routine until cancer targeted our family and everything changed. All the fun as I knew it stopped — confirming that cancer is indeed a curse. With all the doctor appointments, medications, and stress, we never went to the gym as a family anymore. Instead of the fun, loud car rides, it was gloomy, lonely trips. Family dinners became a distant memory and my mom hardly cooked for us. With all the new restrictions on my mom’s diet, we each decided we would support her by following those restrictions as well; unfortunately, the limitations made going out to eat cumbersome and disruptive. I never imagined thinking about food restrictions on a daily basis, asking waiters if there is dairy or soy in an entrée instead of the specials for the evening, or stopping our regular smoothies after a good work out. Our new pizza became vegan: something I never had heard of let alone thought I would enjoy as a lifestyle. Our weekend restaurant ventures became home cooked meals by friends or family. We rarely ate out due to limited options for my mother. And if we did go out for a special celebration, my mother generally ate a light salad and then had her actual dinner once we returned home. Slowly, as my mother went through physical changes, I went through emotional ones.

Luckily, our workout days became the core of our week — the part of the day that we all looked forward to. Initially we all went separately, as my mom could not go and one of us always stayed with her. But after my mother’s surgery she was placed on Tamoxifen. Her doctors stressed the importance of exercise, stating it was the most beneficial for recovery as well as the best preventive for a recurrence; however, Tamoxifen has detrimental side effects as well, such as blood clots, which can be prevented with moderate, daily exercise. Initially, I forced her to go on walks with me every single day to keep her active. During these walks, we both had our one-on-one time, exchanging fears and dreams, updating each other on the details of our respective days, listening to the latest songs, while still enjoying the serenity of nature. After doing in depth research on how to help cancer survivors, I learned that Yoga is supposed to be very beneficial. As she had multiple surgeries, she was at risk for not only scarring and losing flexibility of various joints and muscles, but also lymphedema. Supplementing Yoga with regular exercise apparently decreases these potential problems. So, I immediately signed her up for yoga but went with her as well because without a buddy, she refused to attend classes. As she healed and became stronger, she resumed exercising at the gym and eventually all of us were going together again.

Though we still went to our local JCC, our workouts changed—while we used to do Aerobic and Zumba classes, we now transitioned to Yoga and Ti Chi. Interestingly, we all felt better doing these than the treadmill, elliptical or free weights. Moreover, we all noticed how stress free we felt.

So yes, cancer is a curse for any family. But the distinction for our family is that it was a curse in the short term; after that, I think it has actually been a blessing. Sure, there are scares once in a while of my mother’s health: bone pain, a new lump, sadness, or even a possible clot. But, we all know we are doing all that we can to keep her healthy and, more importantly, happy. Without her cancer diagnosis, our whole family dynamic would not have changed. I would have still been a teen in my “own world,” missing out on all the new cancer knowledge and involvement in my community. I would be unaware of the struggles and pain families undergo with a sick parent. I would never have found Bay Area Cancer Connections and observed the amazing impacts they do for so many people. More importantly, I would have never felt the joy of participating and helping others in need and making my own footprint in the community. My family would never have appreciated all that we took for granted in our daily routines and how much stress really impacts us. All the obstacles on our journey have only strengthened our bonds while amplifying our desire to fight back against the cancer.

Upon resuming exercise, just like the smallest inclines during our walks were a battle that became easier with strength, our journey in our family battling cancer finally reached the summit. Now, instead of my parents calling me to get in the car for gym time, it’s me driving them, with our music playlist blaring.