Cancer Still Wrapped

June 15, 2020

I sat down beside my eldest brother in the living room, my middle brother would not be home from college for another week. The Christmas tree was lit up vibrantly and the faint crackle of the fireplace was in the background. Then I saw my mom’s face, and I knew that something wasn’t quite right. Moments later, through tears my mom tried desperately not to shed, my parents would tell us that doctors had found a tumor in my mom’s breast. She had cancer. My first thought was “No way. Not possible.” Everyone knows that cancer can happen to anyone. Everyone also thinks cancer will not happen to their family. As ridiculous as that sounds, that was exactly what I thought. But in that moment, like a thief in the night, cancer had come in and stolen every last ounce of security that I had. The world was collapsing around me and I thought there was absolutely nothing that I could do.

I am one of three brothers in my family. My mom tells us that the greatest compliment she ever received was when a friend of hers said that she and my dad were raising “great men”. After hearing about my mom’s breast cancer, I thought to myself, “It’s time to stand up and be that man.” It is time for us to do all the things for my mom that she has done for us over the years. My mom is special. I know there are (and should be) a lot of kids who say that, but for me, it is extraordinarily true. She has always given of herself non-stop. Our needs come first. Our hopes and dreams are her hopes and dreams. In fact, when I suggested perhaps deferring my enrollment to Purdue University, she said “Absolutely not! Lukas, you have worked so hard for this dream of flight school and it will be a beautiful day when your dad and I drop you off on that campus!” Usually, when teenagers and young adults need advice or someone to talk to, they go to their friends. Not so for me and my brothers. Our mom is our “person”. Not to say that she tries to be our best friend, quite the opposite. She will always be truthful. She will always tell us what we need to hear and what is best to hear, not necessarily what we want to hear. She is a powerful force. Now, it is my turn to be that Powerful Force.

Breast cancer treatment can be very slow. We knew about her cancer for two months before things really got going. Two months of tests and worry. And learning new things. There was actually a funny moment when I was talking to my parents and said, “Can’t they just, you know…..cut them off?”. My mom responded by saying that yes, that was something that was being discussed. I was a little shocked, because actually I was kind of kidding. My dad looked at me and said, “Yes. It’s called a masectomy.” (He mispronounced it a tiny bit!) I looked at my dad and said “No way. You’re lying to make me feel better. You just took the word vasectomy and put an ‘M’ on it for mammary!”. My mom then corrected both of us, explained to me what a mastectomy was and we all kind of had a good chuckle over that. We can always find a way to laugh in my family.

My mom’s cancer treatment began with surgery. They removed a very large, 8-centimeter tumor. It was much larger than they thought it would be, but my mom’s good spirits never diminished. Her first question after surgery was checking to make sure her boys were okay. “If my boys are okay, I’m okay.” That’s her mantra. That’s what keeps her going. She wants those around her to be happy. She teaches middle school and while she was recovering, she wrote 115 cards to her students. Each was personal and different. This is how much she cares about people. One week after surgery, I woke up to the sound of my mom getting violently ill in the bathroom. I rushed in and my dad was there saying that she was okay, but he called her surgeon and they were on their way back to the hospital. How I wished I could take this from my mom. I would have traded places with her in a second.

Radiation treatment is next. She has 6 weeks of radiation each day and after that, she will start chemotherapy. She is not concerned at all about losing her hair. “Hair is nothing. As long as I am here, that is my everything.” Her cancer is also in her lymph nodes. This means a little harder fight. But my mom is the strongest woman I know. She is not in this fight alone. Our family is there with her. My dad and my brothers and I are by her side one hundred percent.

I don’t know how this cancer story will end, but I know that my mom will never surrender in her fight. Each day, through this fight, she has taken the time to answer my questions and to calm my nerves. My mom is a special woman, but cancer doesn’t seem to care. It is doing its best to wreck her spirits and mine, but each day, it gets further and further from doing so. Instead, we are closer together and more ready to take on this fight than ever.

This is all so new to me. We learned of cancer in December of 2019. For me, cancer is nowhere near “unwrapped”. It is a closed box with so many layers of paper that get removed one at a time. Sometimes you even have to put a layer of paper back on the box. There are times when it feels as though you want to take a saw and just hack your way through the box and get the center to see what the end is. Sometimes you want to just put all the layers of paper back on the box, stuff it in the closet, and hope no one ever finds it. Mostly though, you just want to unwrap it together, knowing that each layer is a layer of hope and dreams and days to come.

Lukas Nickelson