My mom has been healthy for nearly two years, but I’ll never forget how I felt when she told me she had cancer. I had just rolled out of bed, my teenage mind occupied with the day’s agenda: algebra test, volleyball practice, Girl Scouts troop meeting. My parents ushered me into my dad’s home office and sat me down on the couch.
When my mom said the word, “cancer,” my whole body went numb. I sunk deeper into the couch. I was so scared. “What’s going on?” I asked them. “What does this mean?” To me, cancer was a death sentence, but Mom assured me that everything was going to be okay.
My mother is a fighter when it comes to her health. When she was pregnant with me, she had to have a pacemaker inserted. The cardiologist had said I would have died without it. When I was young, she had other procedures to remove her appendix, her ovaries, a tumor in her shoulder and another from her brain.
I helped her as much as I could during her recovery. Because I was always a step behind if not right beside her, my mom called me her shadow. After her brain surgery in 2010, she also called me her cane, her eyes, her voice, and her mind.
Although breast cancer runs in my family and my great-grandmother died of it, I never thought it could affect my mother. She was my rock and my best friend—not to mention my Girl Scout troop leader and my childhood teacher. Luckily, the doctors found the small spot in her breast tissue at stage zero or pre-cancer.
First, she had a lumpectomy to remove the pinhead-sized spot and began radiation several weeks later. My online class schedule let me to go to every single session with her—Monday through Friday at 7 a.m. for 33 days.
I usually wasn’t allowed past the waiting room, but one morning I got to see the treatment in action. As my mom lay very still, nurses took 20 minutes to perfectly position her in the machine. The treatment only lasted five minutes and she never looked like she was in pain, but radiation was far from easy.
After each session, my mom got a burst of energy then crashed. Once she fell asleep during my volleyball practice. Seeing her slumped over in the stands almost gave me a heart attack. I was scared and confused. I remember asking God, Why is she going through this? She hasn’t done anything wrong. Most of all, I was frustrated I couldn’t just make her cancer disappear.
I tried to focus on what I could do: run errands, cook. When I wasn’t helping my dad with meal prep, I was mixing up and baking snacks for my mom with whatever we had in the kitchen. When she was too tired to get out of bed, I sat beside her scrolling through websites on my laptop about cancer treatment, research, and nutrition to make sense of what was happening to her.
But everything I found was written for either adults or young children, either too technical or too simple for me. None of my friends had gone through something like this, so I couldn’t turn to them either. Instead I learned by watching, listening, and just being there for her.
Radiation turned out to be successful. In April 2016, a year after my mom’s diagnosis, the oncologist declared her cancer-free. We cried when we got the news. Once my family’s nightmare was over, I realized that I had the potential to help other teenagers whose loved ones have cancer.
That summer, I thought up The Shoulder to Lean on Project, a website where teens could go for easy-to-understand information about the types of cancer and treatment, how to care someone dealing with side effects of radiation and chemo, and how to cope and care for yourself during those difficult times.
Over the next year, I worked on the site for my Girl Scout Gold Award, a capstone project and highest honor earned by a scout. One of my mom’s nurses served as my advisor for the project and helped connect me with oncologists, members of the patient-family advisory board and other professionals from Wellstar, a state healthcare organization that is now sponsoring my project. I also recruited a genetic counselor to write articles and other teens to share their personal stories.
Earning my Gold Award in September was incredible, but the best part of the project has been realizing its potential to help others. Honestly, I think a lot of kids won’t say anything to me directly about the site because they don’t want others to know they’re on it or need that information. (After all, I kept quiet about my mom’s diagnosis for a while.) And that’s why I made a website; it’s anonymous and accessible.
But once when I presented the site to students, a girl whose father had passed away from cancer broke down in tears. Although she didn’t have the website when she needed it, she said it was a huge weight off her shoulders just knowing that something like this existed now. All I want is to affect someone, so that meant so much.
Mom always says things happen for a reason. Obviously I wish that my mom didn’t have to go through cancer diagnosis or treatment, but I’m glad I was able to turn the experience into something constructive.
I’ve created a support system for teens and discovered my own dream of becoming a neuro-oncologist—a doctor who specializes in treating patients with brain cancer—in the process. Most of all, I’m grateful that Mom is healthy again and that I can continue holding her hand, serving as her shadow, and providing her a shoulder to lean on for whatever comes her way.