This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post as part of a series of posts raising awareness of National Women’s Health Week.
My mother, the certified nursing assistant (CNA), has stage four breast cancer. She has tumors in her breast, on her hip and on her skull. The tumor on her hip is what bothers her the most because it’s painful to do just about anything. My siblings and I are working to get her the care she needs and if her treatment works and she changes her lifestyle a bit she could live long enough to see her grandkids graduate from high school. But she will never be completely healthy again.
How did we even end up here? We have no history of breast cancer in our family. My mother is a healthcare provider, I work in the healthcare industry, and my sister — with whom she lives — is very aware of the importance of staying healthy with regular care. How does someone like my mother — who often worked with terminal cancer patients — slip through the cracks, with no diagnoses until stage four? Simple — she ignored what was happening to her body. She ignored it until she could not ignore it anymore. She did not have health insurance and she was afraid. That’s the reality. My mother has — until this point — lived every day taking care of others as an occupation and caring for her family but not herself, often rationalizing that she didn’t want to be a bother to her grown children. Instead she pretended nothing was wrong until she could bear the pain in her hip no longer and tumor in her chest was visible to the naked eye.
After an official diagnosis my mother’s survival rate now stands at 22 percent. And so begins our journey of navigating the health system to confront a host of problems that include terminal cancer, coupled with arthritis and high blood pressure. At first I was angry, not just at her for not taking care of herself but also at a system that made it difficult for her to do so because she was uninsured. Then sadness slowly crept in. Here’s a woman who came to the United States from Honduras by herself in her early 20s, who raised three productive members of society, who received her CNA license in her 50s and now must fight for her life because she didn’t make time for a simple, routine exam and skipped out on a mammogram for over five years. She may not be around for my daughter’s first birthday or my nephew’s first day of school. There may not be visits to abuela’s house for Mother’s Day and Christmas. When my daughter is older I may only have stories and photos of her in my mother’s arms as an infant to share. All of those milestones and memories she could make in the future are now more uncertain than ever.
Women are strong, but not superhuman. We need to take time to care for ourselves and go to our healthcare provider for regular check-ups. We can’t be there for our loved ones if we can’t even be there for ourselves, mentally and physically. This year take the National Women’s Health Week Pledge, and learn the steps you can take at any age to be your healthiest you.
If lack of resources or coverage are keeping you from getting your check-up, visit your local Community Health Center. Community Health Centers provide quality preventative and primary healthcare regardless of ability to pay. The care is affordable and offered at a sliding scale fee. You can access a range of preventive healthcare services all under one roof — from cervical and breast cancer screenings to health education and assistance with signing up for health coverage. Best of all, a health center is a healthcare home, a place to return on a regular basis for continuous care.
Life can be tough enough without the added stress an illness can bring. We matter. We mean something to all the people we touch including our friends, and family so we shouldn’t ignore our health.