Growing up, I was taught that cancer is a terrible killer but I NEVER thought it would come for someone I love.

One day, during my last year of high school, I was sitting at my dining room table where I did my homework every day after school. Some days, I had to be quick so that I could finish my assignments before I had to go to work at FiveBelow. I was not scheduled that day, so I welcomed any distractions.

I heard my mom in her room yelling into the phone. This was not unusual, considering her “quiet voice” was equivalent to most people’s “yelling over the noise of loud construction” voice.

She was making an appointment for a mammogram. I wasn’t alarmed. My mom was always very good with keeping up with her health. She went to the doctor regularly for check-ups and such and lectured her mother and sister for not being as proactive. Or so I thought.

I heard her say something about a lump. Up to that moment, I wasn’t particularly engaged in eavesdropping on my mother’s phone call, but now I was concerned. I put down my pencil and turned my head, as if the slight movement would help me hear her better.

“A few months ago,” she said. My jaw dropped. I may have been a dumb teenager but I knew that waiting a few months to make an appointment… after finding a lump in your breast… was a RISK, to say the least.

She’s fine, I told myself. It couldn’t be anything serious. Things like that just didn’t happen to people I knew. And certainly not to my mom. Even Cancer would be too afraid to mess with Lisa Hays.

The next night, I had just finished a 4-11pm shift at FiveBelow, and I still had a pre-calculus assignment to finish. I was tired and eager to get home. Even though I was a senior in high school, I didn’t have my drivers’ license, so I had to wait for someone to pick me up.

The familiar bumping and rattling of my older brother’s white Cavalier rolls up to stop in front of the sidewalk in front of me. Damen’s loud music was muffled, filling the inside of his little car, pushing against the windows, rattling them. I was annoyed because he was late and he has terrible taste in music.

I grudgingly opened the passenger door and, as if my some miracle, he turned his music down. Waydown.

“Have you talked to mom at all today?” he asked me.

“No, I went to work before she got home.”

“You should talk to her when we get to the house.” And then his music went back up. I was confused. I didn’t know why he wasn’t just telling me whatever it was.

When I got home, the lights were out. My parents’ bedroom door was closed and I didn’t hear the TV, so I went to my room to finish my math homework.

I remembered the conversation I’d heard the previous day, but shoved any worries deep into the farthest corners of my mind. Like I said, nothing bad could possibly happen. She was fine. But the weight of those concerns didn’t disappear.

It’s like putting your phone in your pocket. Sure, you remove it from sight and it physically disappears, but you still know that it is there. You still feel the weight of it pulling at your clothing.

The memory of the next afternoon is singed into my brain. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget a single detail of it. I can’t say that I really want to.

Damen was on the couch eating chips. Boy Meets World was playing on T.V. The door creaked open and my mom walked into the house.

She was wearing a light pink zip-up jacket. Looking back, I realize it was quite the coincidence.

My mom leaned against the doorway and frowned.

“Well,” she said. “It’s cancer.”

She said it so casually, as if she was telling us she didn’t win the lottery.

My heart sunk. What was I supposed to say? What couldI say? I sat silently staring straight ahead and she moved past me to go to her room and then later, she cooked dinner. As if it was a normal day.

I had gotten up and gone into my room. I cried for my tearless mother. To this day, she has not shed a single tear for herself.

Throughout the next year, despite all of her treatments and the pain she was in, she never once complained about having cancer. Sure, she told us when she was aching or uncomfortable, but never shared the thoughts we did: why her?

We were lucky. Families in our community brought meals to our house, bought Christmas presents for my little brother, checked up on my father (it truly hit him the hardest). My mom was a soldier through chemo, radiation, and a double partial mastectomy. She rocked a bandana at my prom pictures, a wig at my graduation.

She is by far the strongest person I know. She is my hero because whenever something awful happened to her, she stayed positive and she didn’t let it define her, didn’t let it put her down. Now, she still struggles with the long-lasting effects of the treatments and it is hard for us to remember that it all happened for real, it wasn’t just a nightmare. We are so lucky to have that privilege.

My advice for those reading who have lost someone or has a loved one fighting Cancer, based on my experience:

  • If your friends aren’t there for you the way you expected them to be, don’t take it personally. They probably aren’t bad friends. A lot of people have a hard time with reaching out because no one truly knows what to say in a situation like this. “I’m sorry” doesn’t help with the pain. Tell them what you need from them. And trust me, you’ll need them.
  • Take care of your family.
  • If you need to talk about it, talk about it. Visit the counseling center, seek professional help. Having a loved one fall ill affects you, too. It’s okay not to be okay. You don’t have to be so strong all the time.
  • A positive attitude is everything. I know it’s easy, but don’t let yourself forget the goodness in life. Don’t let darkness consume you, because life is so much better when it’s lived fully.