When I found a lump in my breast several years ago, I couldn’t bear to tell my mother. She was already walking in the shadow of cancer — not because she had it herself, but because she had become a cancer caregiver.
My family tree is blighted with cancer. My paternal grandmother had a radical mastectomy in rural North Carolina in the 1940s, a procedure that left her with an open, weeping wound where her breasts had been. Family legend says that she couldn’t find a white doctor (there was no black doctor for miles) to take her as a patient. She went instead to the local veterinarian, who referred her to a white doctor who didn’t let race get in the way of his oath “to do no harm.” On that same side of the family, a great-grandfather shot himself to death after a cancer diagnosis, an act of deadly pragmatism to avoid his cells’ painful betrayal.