Lessons I learned from my mom about breast cancer

Photos by Ria Tafani as published in Rochester Magazine, November 2013.

Four years ago my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she told me the news, I got angry.

Why her? How could this happen? Can it happen to me? What choices would she make? I wanted to support my mom any way I could, and wondered: what could I do or say to really help?

Throughout my life, I have learned a lot from my mom. During the months she battled breast cancer, she taught me a few more things about courage and strength. Here are a few of those lessons.

Lesson #1: Take charge of your health. As soon as Mom received the diagnosis in January 2013, she became Google’s “Number One” fan. She tapped in all sorts of key words on her iPhone where she read, researched, and watched videos online. She wanted to know everything about breast cancer and explore surgery options. To Mom, it was a process she needed to go through to prepare herself for any outcome.

Lesson #2: Ask for help. Mom never thought she would need the services provided by Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester (BCCR). She was already familiar with BCCR since she and my dad have attended and contributed artwork each year to its annual fundraising gala ARTrageous Affair. BCCR’s Executive Director Holly Anderson shared her story in addition to other helpful information with Mom. She and her staff also put Mom in touch with others who were willing to talk about their breast cancer. Mom took comfort in knowing that she wasn’t alone.

Lesson #3: Be supportive. When learning everything she could about breast cancer became overwhelming, Mom was thankful for friends and family who gave her their love, support, and prayers. It’s the little things that count, from bringing meals, to sitting and talking over coffee, to driving to appointments, to checking in with phone calls and text messages. Often, a simple: “I’m thinking about you. How are you holding up, today?” is enough.

Lesson #4: Be grateful. In 1996 artist Ramón Santiago created a special breast cancer painting titled “Courage” to help raise funds for those touched by breast cancer. It’s a beautiful, haunting portrait of a woman. Above her head is a pink ribbon rising against the darkness. Tattooed across her face and neck is a dove. Ramón told my mom, his sister, that it meant courage. Mom said that’s what she needed to face breast cancer – courage. After his death in 2001, a series of prints continue to raise funds through the efforts of my brother Steven Argento who carries on his uncle’s philanthropy.

Lesson #5: Have faith. Not everyone’s breast cancer is the same, so outcomes differ. On March 13th, just before Mom went into surgery, a new Pope was elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church. She felt that the white smoke appearing from the Vatican to usher in the new Pope was a good sign, and she put her cancer in God’s hands. The surgeon was able to remove all the cancerous tissue and the pathology report confirmed it. No radiation or chemotherapy would be needed.

Lesson #6: Share your story. Mom told me that once you say to someone, ‘I have breast cancer,’ you belong to a tribe of women who know what it’s like to fight for their lives. So many women had shared their stories with Mom, giving her hope and encouragement. Mom wanted to do that, too. Not long after her surgery, she spoke on the phone to a woman who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. The woman wanted to know everything she could. After Mom told her story, the woman thanked her.

Lesson #7: Love with all your heart. My mom has a little saying by Hammerstein that she likes to recite: “The love in our hearts wasn’t put there to stay, love isn’t love until you give it away.” In that spirit, my dad, artist Frank Argento created an original pastel drawing in 2013 and called it “Red Heart.” He donated it to BCCR’s ARTrageous Affair. The love that my parents share, they give away unselfishly. Maybe each of us should give away the love in our hearts, too.

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