Living with cancer

Emily Bialkowski
Argus Managing Editor

Today in The Caledonia Argus we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month with pages dedicated to the women who not only have fought this disease, but those who are working to promote research and funding to beat the disease.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 2.6 million U.S. women with a history of breast cancer are alive today. This particular statistic is of great interest to me because I personally know three of those women, including my mom, her sister and another newspaper editor.

From these women, and others, I’ve heard there are three parts surrounding a cancer diagnosis, especially breast cancer: life before cancer, life during cancer and life after cancer – be it in this earthly realm or otherwise.

I want to talk about life during cancer. It is the part of my mom’s diagnosis I most remember.

She was in good spirits about her prognosis and needed to undergo a lumpectomy and radiation. She was calm and confident about the lumpectomy, and it was described to me as a simple scoop they’d take out of her breast tissue.

It wasn’t long after the lumpectomy that my mom knew something was wrong. Her sutures were bleeding more than seemed right, and she was crammed into a late afternoon appointment with the triple-booked surgeon to follow-up. Because she wasn’t panicking or freaking out, and because her husband had already taken time away from work for her other appointments, my husband (then boyfriend) agreed to take her to Madison for the check up.

They were gone for a very long time and when she got home the gravity of the situation hit me like a semi.

The space that was created by the lumpectomy had filled with blood clots. The surgeon, without sedation, had to reopen the sutures and manually pull out the clots that had formed between her chest wall and remaining breast.

It was graphic and heart breaking. Not only had her breast been reduced to skin, but the incision needed to heal without sutures just in case more clots were to form.

Even my husband, who had already been around the cancer block with his mom and brother, said it was a bit much. He said, “Emily, they took care of her right there in the little patient room.”

Mom was instructed to pack her upper body with gauze multiple times a day, and she quietly dealt with her situation.

She asked me if I wanted to see it – the wound. My answer was no. I knew she was suffering, and I was suffering in my own helpless way as this woman I so dearly love accepted the part of her life that was living with breast cancer.

Eventually the wound healed, and radiation commenced with its own bag of discomforts.

The time came for my older brother’s wedding.

Mom asked if I’d do her hair, and I naturally obliged. She was still packing her gauze and wanted to make sure it didn’t show through her beautiful, mint-colored dress. She didn’t want her thinning hair to appear unsightly either.

As I combed and curled and watched strand after strand fall out I tried to keep a chipper sound in my voice. “It’s not too bad is it?” she asked. “Not a bit bad, Mom,” I said, lying straight through my teeth. I think it was the hairspray that held her thinning locks in that day.

Life after cancer has commenced in big ways for my mom. She got to see all three of us siblings get married, and her four grandchildren are the beneficiaries of  her unstoppable energy.

But there was that time, that time in her life that was living with breast cancer, and it was hard to say the least.


You can contact Emily
Bialkowski at