This Cannot Be Happening to My Mother...

I think it was the first day of summer when I walked down the stairs to see my parents sitting outside staring at nothing. I can still see them sitting on the patio, and remember how uncomfortable they seemed.

No talking. No laughing. Just staring.

Then I saw the cellphone in the middle of the table, and my heart dropped. I had been at work all day; I had totally forgotten it was the day we were supposed to get my mom’s biopsy results back. I mean, she had had the lump near her left breast for a year and a half. There was no way it could have been malignant.

I hesitated before going outside, because I knew I could potentially be walking out to receive the worst news a daughter could imagine. You never know how you’re going to react in a situation until you’re in that situation, and after I opened the door to join the uncomfortableness around the patio table, I entered what I thought was going to be the worst situation in the world. It was as if time stood still.

My mom had breast cancer.


I think it was the first day of summer because I remember it was the first day I had worn shorts. I sat down next to my mom and my tears hit my bare legs. It’s amazing how vivid a memory can be. Nobody said anything after that news. We just sat and stared.

And I cried.

I didn’t know what to do. How else do you react to hearing your mom has cancer?

This was my MOTHER!

This was not supposed to happen. She’s invincible, isn’t she?

The thoughts that went through my head were some of the most terrifying thoughts. I’d never felt fear of the unexpected like I did in that moment. The doctor believed it was a slow growing cancer and very treatable. Those words, however, when applied to my mom, were not as encouraging as I anticipated them to be.

It took a couple of days, but in good motherly fashion (at least my mother’s fashion) she announced that she was taking the bull by the horns and wasn’t going to let this “cancer crap” bring her down. The plan of attack included chemotherapy and radiation, and over the following 7 months we did it all. Along the way, I learned oncologists are pretty special people and chemotherapy centers can be dark places.

There are a lot of beeping machines infusing medications that seem impossible to pronounce. Some days can be good days and some days can be pretty bad days.

By the end of it my mom had lost some weight. She lost her hair. She lost her breast. But I’ll tell you what, she never lost her positivity or her sense of humor.

Plus, she pulled off a wig really well.

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She never asked for sympathy and never made excuses, and I believe that’s how she kicked the CRAP out of cancer.

It’s interesting how differently cancer is defined when it applies to someone you love. It’s filled with emotions: fear, anxiety, and apprehension. Thankfully, in my mother’s case, it was also filled with courage and optimism. There were plenty of days when her energy was lost and she questioned treatment strategies, but more often than not she was able to get out of bed in the mornings and brave whatever the day brought. I’m so lucky to be able to say my mom is a cancer survivor because I know that isn’t always how the story ends.

While I absolutely hate cancer, I will say it has a way of making a person reevaluate what this life is all about. These days my mom doesn’t wait around for life to happen, she goes after whatever it is she wants. She intentionally enjoys every moment of every day, rain or shine.

See? I knew she was invincible.

Those 7 months were without a doubt the scariest thing that has ever happened to me or my family. Now when people share stories, or even when I hear songs about cancer, I am instantly reminded of how I felt.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget those feelings.

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Perhaps the most ironic detail in all of this is that I am writing this blog as a medical student. In fact, I received my acceptance to PNWU the day of her last chemo treatment. It was strange to be sitting in the chemotherapy suite of the hospital when I answered that phone call. I’d shed a lot of tears in that room. This time, however, they were tears of joy.

Today, I find myself engrossed in day-to-day studies. Medical school has proved to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. However, in an unexpected way, I think experiencing my mom’s cancer fight with her played a part in preparing me (although I don’t like giving cancer that much credit).

In more ways than one, I’ve come to understand that this life is chaotic and entirely unpredictable.

If you have dreams, follow them. If you have places you want to visit, go visit them. If you have people you want to spend time with, call them up. If you have loved ones battling illness, surround yourself with really good people, think really good thoughts, and pray hard.

As I continue on my medical journey, I hope every day someone finds a way to kick this stupid cancer thing to the curb. Thankfully, I think we’re close. At the very least I’d like to believe we’re really close.

Regardless, I’m so very fortunate that I still have my mom.

I have a new motto these days: It’s all about attitude. I learned that from my mom from day one, but it was made more apparent when faced with the fight against cancer. I know it wasn’t my personal fight, but I think it made me re-examine my approach to really tough and scary situations.


One of my favorite characters from one of my favorite shows, Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy, said it perfectly.

“Sometimes the future changes quickly and completely, and we’re left with only the choice of what to do next. We can choose to be afraid of it — to stand there trembling not moving, assuming the worst that can happen — or we step forward into the unknown and assume it will be brilliant.”

Cancer is so many expletives. And sometimes it wins. However, with the right attitude (and good doctors), it can be beat!

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Jenna Cacchillo

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd Year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences


Jenna Cacchillo