Rebecca Helberg | October 23, 2013
I prevent cancer for family – not only for my personal family, but for the cohesive, supportive, loving idea of family. Family and cancer are synonymous for me. Leukemia took my mother, uncle and grandmother all before I entered high school. Doctor visits were protocol; chemotherapy was the norm. Through all the pain and sadness of cancer, the strong bond of family was ever-present.
There was a lot of love in my family growing up. My mom was home every day when I got home from school. My dad coached many of my sports teams. My brother watched over me as we went through school together. Cancer did not get in the way. My father’s emotional support of my mother never wavered. He stood by her side and demonstrated deep, honest love. It was incredible.
Home videos were highly valued in my household. In my young family, making home videos was the only way of showing new milestones to relatives across the country. These images are the best way I remember my mom. For the first year of my life, she sang me “Happy Birthday” for each month that went by. While singing, she would always include how old I was and my first and middle name. These videos remind me how lucky I am to have had a sweet and loving mother.
Strength is a common word associated with cancer fighters. My mother was no exception. Through chemotherapy, hospitalizations and deteriorating health, her role as a mother was never compromised. She was there for me when I needed someone to talk about relationships, heartbreak and all the confusions that come with growing up. Even now, I can’t think of a memory where my mom’s unstable health hindered our relationship. It is only when cancer took her away from me that I had a real understanding of what the disease could do.
After my mom died, rituals, holidays and day to day life changed. My relationships with family took on new meaning and opened new opportunities for closeness. While sometimes cancer itself cannot be prevented, I can say that turning inward towards family is a best practice for making sure that family turmoil is kept at bay. One new ritual that started for my family was to go to a Chicago Cubs game every year during Mother’s Day weekend. While it can be difficult to be confronted with so many reminders about mothers during the baseball game, the ritual makes it possible for my brother, father and I to be together in our own capacity. We take control of the day and decide to make it a family day rather than simply for mothers.
My family is a united front against cancer. We fight cancer so other families do not have to be strained emotionally, financially or physically. For years, members of my family have participated in walks and fundraisers in support of the fight against cancer. We have participated in The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk and Relay for Life. Earlier this month, my brother ran the Chicago Marathon through sponsorship of the American Cancer Society. He wore a pin dedicating the 26.2 mile trek to our mother.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls on, the stories of families and cancer are in the forefront of my mind. I enjoy watching survivors tell their stories and lobby for research and funding. I find it inspiring that families are publicly fighting the disease and showing that no one is alone in their hardship. However, I feel sometimes that October becomes commercialized when it comes to breast cancer. The pride that so many exude through ribbons, bags and clothing often comes off as capitalistic without a deep appreciation for what breast cancer awareness can truly mean.
This is just one story of how cancer impacts a family. I have aunts, teachers and close friends who have fought cancer; some of these people survived; others did not. The experience is always a struggle. As I remember my mother’s – and so many other’s – fights against cancer, I can adamantly say that I prevent cancer not only for my family, but for all families like mine.