Wait a minute! I’m the father. I’m the grandfather. I’m the one that is supposed to be the role model, the one leaving a legacy. Then why in the name of ancestral protocol am I the one learning life lessons from my own children?
Yes, this father has indeed garnered a powerful lesson from two remarkable women — my daughters Taryn and Maggie.
Cancer is a dirty word in our family. Talk about hate speech — this is one word that stirs our emotions like none other. My wife died from breast cancer, my aunt died from breast cancer, my mother barely survived breast cancer, a cousin died from rectal cancer, and a friend died from pancreatic cancer. Even now, a cousin’s husband is battling cancer and another dear friend is fighting pancreatic cancer. You get the idea. My family and circle of friends have felt the searing bite of the Big C enough to cringe at the mere mention of the word.
When my late wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she opted for a double mastectomy. Sadly, it failed to stop the fast-spreading disease, and she died three months later. Our family, stunned and in shock, reeled from the sudden loss of our beautiful 59-year-old family matriarch.
As time passed, our grief tempered only slightly. Life moved on, but the pain of the loss lingered. The hearts of my five children ached realizing their mom would never meet her grandchildren — eight of whom were born in the six years following her death. But within our three daughters, a growing fear emerged that cancer might be stalking them as well. Would annual mammograms be enough to catch this dreaded disease? It clearly wasn’t for their mom.
Coming to grips with their mortality wasn’t nearly as frightening as the prospect of leaving their young children motherless. What could they do?
In recent years, significant progress had been made with DNA analysis. A blood test, referred to as the BRCA genetic test is able to identify harmful mutations in either one of the two prominent breast cancer susceptibility genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2. The presence of these inherited mutations is a signal to women of an increased risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Two of my three daughters recently tested positive for these BRCA genetic variable mutations.
What followed were meetings with genetic counselors, appointments with specialists and many sleepless, prayerful nights pondering the enormity of the decision now facing them. Should they preemptively have surgery? Would the pain and scarring be worth the reduced risk?
These sisters, as close as sisters can be, now locked arms and made a decision that rocked their world and shook mine to its very foundation. They both chose to have double mastectomies.
I confess to being overwhelmed with that helpless feeling once again. Yes, my girls are in their forties now, but does a dad ever lose the innate desire to protect them, to shield them from life’s painful twists? Other than being a supportive presence and a devoted prayer partner, I had been unable to help my wife. My body shook, and the tear ducts opened wide as I contemplated my daughters taking the same steps, albeit in a preventive way.
Maggie was first. When I questioned her decision, wanting in some way an assurance that the right path had been chosen, she was resolute. She explained in no uncertain terms, that this surgery would reduce her chances of breast cancer from 80% to 1%. She was willing to endure the short term pain for the long term benefit. “Dad, this is the right thing to do.”
I have seen courage acted out on the movie screen. I have read about courageous acts in books. Now I have seen the face of courage up close — in the determined countenance of a forty-year-old mother of three small sons as she purposed to make a pre-emptive strike against our family enemy.
I never knew courage could be so beautiful.
Next up was Taryn. Just as determined as her sister, she reminded me that these tests confirmed that it was not a matter of if she would get cancer, but when. Arriving at the hospital on the day of surgery, I met her doctors. They were as much in awe of this woman as I am. One called her “a special lady.” Another looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. McElhannon, if I had a daughter with these test results, I would tell her she is doing the right thing at the right time.”
Still, echos of the past reverberated through my soul. I started taking long slow breaths, trying to be brave for the valiant daughter sitting beside me. As we waited for her to be called back for pre-op, she turned to me and offered a startling and unexpected observation. “Dad, Maggie and I are in agreement. Mom’s last gift to us may save our lives. Although she lost her battle with cancer, watching her fight it prompted us to get these DNA tests and make this preemptive decision.” I had never thought of it quite like that — the loss of their mom serving as a life-saving act of empowerment for them.
As Taryn walked away to surgery, she turned and gave us a reassuring smile. I took another long slow breath. If this was her mom’s last gift, it was accompanied by two others — faith and courage.
The surgeries are complete, and the healing has begun. Family and friends have circled around these two dauntless women. It occurs to me that matriarchs are not born but formed in the fiery crucible of life. The battle continues.
And for our family, the courage of two women leads the way.