A Journal of One Family’s Loss to Breast Cancer


Nana has been in my life since I was a little girl. I tell my children all the time that family is not just who you are born too, but it is also the special people that God puts in your life. For all of us, Nana was our family. In high school I would come home and if my heart hurt because of a boy, she knew just what to say. She put up with us when we were moody teenagers and loved us unconditionally. She was at our graduations, weddings, and births of our children. When I had my children and went to work, Nana came to take care of my babies. When I got divorced, she swooped in to pick up the pieces of my heart and pushed me when I didn’t know how to go on. She made sure that the children and I remembered that we had to pick ourselves up and go on and that we didn’t need a home, money, or material things as long as we had each other.

My heart ached for Nana as memories of the past three years came to my mind. I was lost in the thought when I felt Aidan come up beside me and put her hand in mine. “You know Nana is here with us” she says. She gives my hand a squeeze and runs off to join her friends. I know she is right, but sometimes memories are hard to push aside once they come for a visit.

Sunday night after I tucked the children snug in their beds there was something I wanted to do. I went into my room, reached way into the back of the closet where I keep a box of special things. I carefully balanced it and set it on the ground. Right on the top I found what I was looking for. My journal. Three years ago I started keeping a journal. It started out as a place for me to write down my thoughts as I went through the divorce, moving, and starting a career. But it ended up being a place where I wrote about Nana and all of the emotions that come with hearing that someone you love has breast cancer.

I opened the journal to the first page when breast cancer came into our lives.

Tonight Nana told me that she found a lump in her breast. She found it two months ago, but didn’t want to say anything. She said she kept hoping it would go away and she is scared if she goes to the doctor that he might find out it is cancer. Her mother, sister, and aunt all died at a young age from cancer. I told her I will make an appointment first thing in the morning and will go with her. I told her it is probably just a cyst, I think that was my way of comforting myself. Please God let it be a cyst. This is Nana, she can’t be sick. I need her. My children need her. God you can’t take her from us. I need to stop thinking like this. It is going to be okay.

The doctor is going to see her today at 3pm. He sent her this morning for a test and said to come to his office this afternoon. My heart aches with fear. Please God don’t let this be anything. In my heart I want to believe that we will know right away that it is nothing to worry about. God please keep her safe. Please let her be okay.

Nana was diagnosed with cancer. We were silent on the way home, stunned, scared, just taking it all in. We walked in and did what was normal….as if life would still be normal. We went into kitchen and made dinner together. The children were running around laughing and the girls were talking non-stop about their friends and the fun things going on at school. I wanted to freeze the moment. We know she has breast cancer but we don’t know how bad or if it has spread. What if it is bad? What if we can’t fight this? Please God don’t take her from us. Please give me strength…please don’t take her from us.

I can’t sleep. It is 3 am and everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. We go to see the surgeon this morning. I am so afraid, but also hopeful. The uncertainty of the day is overwhelming, but I need to be positive. Today is the first step in figuring out how we are going to fight this. And we will fight it and beat breast cancer. The children can sense that something is going on, but we decided to wait until we had all the information before we tell them. Tonight we will tell them. Please God make her be okay. Give us the chance to fight it. Please God, my children have lost their dad, their home, the life that they used to know…please, please, please don’t take Nana from them. Please God make her be okay.
The Doctor said the cancer is in the lymph nodes and has probably metastasized. I looked at Nana and realized that she was not even able to hear what he was saying. I remember telling myself to be strong and focus on every word he was saying. It is my turn to be strong for her, my turn to hold her up and tell her that we will fight this. My head can’t even begin to comprehend what this means. We will get the PET scan done and find out where we are. We will fight this. We have too. God please don’t take her, please make me strong, please protect her.

The test results are back. The doctor. is sending us to see the oncologist tomorrow. I went by his office and got the report. I read it as I was walking to the car. This can’t be happening. I can’t breathe. The cancer is in her chest, her liver…no….it is wrong. I got home and Nana said for this last night she just wanted to enjoy her babies. Tomorrow she would find out what the report said when she saw the oncologist and go from there. But tonight was about her babies. I stood in the kitchen and made dinner with Nana and the kids. They have no idea how much our lives are going to change tomorrow. I took the kids outside with Nana and took a picture. I want one more of this moment. Please God let me stop time. After we go tomorrow our lives will be different. Please God don’t let her suffer or feel a moment of fear. Embrace her as she has always embraced me. Please let us have hope. I want to stop time.

We went to Nana’s appointment. It is Stage 4. It is terminal. There is nothing they can do. Please God give us a miracle.

Yesterday Nana died. I am sitting on the balcony listening to the ocean. The children are asleep. There is such a comfort for all of us that we are together in this small room for a few days. Last night all six kids snuggled in the same double bed, I slept across the foot of the bed. We fell asleep talking about our favorite times with Nana, trying to figure out what life will be like without her. My mind is racing over all the things that need to get done. There is such a numbness. It is hard to believe we were all here together just a year ago and that now she is gone. I want to scream and beg someone to give me back last year, I didn’t know she would be gone this summer. Tonight we ate dinner at the same outdoor restaurant where just a year ago we were all eating and dancing. I miss her so much. She would be so mad at me if I fell apart. I can’t sleep because the last 24 hours are so fresh in my mind. I was sitting at the station yesterday morning finishing the show. The nurse from hospice called and said it was time. I wanted to say “no, I am not ready”.

She was okay the day before, talking, smiling, and kissing her babies. When I got there the sound was so awful. This gasping, rattling sound that I can’t describe. Her eyes were open but were empty of life. I held her hand. It was so cold. I wanted to yell and scream like Finn does when he wants something. I wanted to yell and scream until someone heard me and made her better. I couldn’t watch. I can’t do this, I am not strong enough. I had to go get my babies. The older four kids had come ahead to the beach with mom and dad. I didn’t think she was going to die. They were with Nana just hours before they left. Daly sat on the bed with her and shared a popsicle with her. They didn’t think it would be the last time they would see her. What will I tell them? I was supposed to come down tomorrow with Finn and Elspeth. But when I saw Nana lying there gasping for air, I had to get to my babies, to Nana’s babies. I took in everything about that moment before I left her. Every sight, sound, smell, and feeling. I knew that this was the last time I would see her alive but I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I touched her cold hand that had held mine for so many years, kissed her cool check, and told her how much I loved her. I swear I could feel a part of my heart leaving as I left her for the last time. My heart was racing. I had to get my children.

I grabbed up Finn and Elspeth and threw some clothes in a suitcase. I held them tightly as I fastened them into their car seats. They watched a movie on the way down, sang songs, and played like two little angels. It was as if they knew what I needed. Out of the blue, Finn starts crying, “I want to call Nana, I need Nana”. Silent tears fill my eyes. My sweet Elspeth, who at five is the light of her Nana’s eyes, says, “Finn, you can’t call Nana anymore. She is an angel now and is in the front seat driving with Mommy”. The minute the words left her mouth the phone rang. It was the hospice nurse saying that Nana had died just a few minutes ago. Just like that she was not here anymore. I hung up and just drove.

I think God had his arms around me, holding me up. There are a lot of details to take care of over the next week, but for right now I want to know in my heart that Elspeth was right. That even though Nana is not here where I can see her, she is still right next to me helping to guide me and my children along the way.



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