AnnMarie was eight years old in the mid-1970s when her mother, Geraldine, was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because AnnMarie was so young, her family was unsure of how involved she should be in the cancer diagnosis. Her mother underwent a full mastectomy, which the doctors believed would be enough to take care of all her cancer. However in a short period of time, her mother started to have intense back pain. When she went to the hospital, the doctors found that her cancer had metastasized to her bones, was destroying three disks in her back, and was going through her spinal column. Geraldine passed away from her battle with breast cancer when AnnMarie was eleven. AnnMarie and her brother came together to care for each other through the ensuing fight.
AnnMarie’s dad later married Judy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. After going through 8 straight years of chemotherapy and radiation, Judy passed away in November 2011. AnnMarie discussed the hardships of losing both of her mothers.
We’re talking about the mid-70s, when cancer wasn’t even in encyclopedias. She was pretty much treated like a leper in the hospital and they didn’t let children in the wards. So once they decided my mom had cancer, they wouldn’t let me in the hospital to see her. There was more than once that my cousins actually snuck me in to let me go see my mom.
The difference in the level of care and treatment and the comparison between what my first mom and my second mom went through has come so far. We have made so much of a difference. There was a time when I wouldn’t have donated a dollar to the American Cancer Society because I very much felt like they let my mom down. It felt like they did the best they could when she was sick, but they knew so little, and so much of what they knew was wrong. It’s come so far now. There’s so much more understanding in trying to help the caregivers and trying to help the survivors, that there wasn’t in the mid-70s. I can’t wait for the day when no other 11-year-old ever has to go through that. I can’t wait for that day.
They did a full mastectomy and thought they had everything. They told us things were clear, things were fine. One of the coolest things we did was that my parents bought a horse farm. It was like we’ve been given a second chance at life. We’re going to do the things Mom wanted to do. So we bought a farm.
The horses were important to my mom. When I started caring for the horses, there were some points where life got in the way for a while, but I was always sure I was going to get back to horses. The farm we have now is in a lot of ways like what my mom tried to build and in so many ways is a thing I wish she could see and I wish she could be a part of.
I got ready to go to school, I went to say goodbye to Mom, but she wouldn’t wake up to say goodbye to me. I left for school, and couldn’t think, couldn’t focus. I knew something wasn’t right. Whatever power you’d like to say was involved, my mom knew that I needed to know, and I needed to get to say goodbye. The doctors said that she should never have woken up that day, she should’ve been gone first thing in the morning, that when she went into the coma, she should’ve been gone at that point, but when I got home from school at 10 after 3, she opened her eyes and said goodbye to me. She was gone at quarter after 3. She waited for me, to say goodbye.
As a teenager, I would tell you that my dad not telling me was a real point of distance for us until I was probably 20. For kids that are old enough to have a basic understanding, I think it’s so important for them to have that chance to be trusted, to understand, to be able to accept it. The day my mom died, I had to accept that my mom’s gone, my family world has completely changed, and my entire family has kept a secret from me. If you can find a way to tell your kids, it would make such a difference. I guess it made a difference for me, in that I tend to be intensely honest. About silly things, I don’t really care, but things that are going to hurt somebody, I am intensely honest about.
Mark Zimmer Champaign, IL
Bryan Bailey Worland, Wyoming