In 1991, Living Beyond Breast Cancer was formed when Marisa C. Weiss, MD, a radiation oncologist, held a conference with the help of some of her patients. Their goal was to provide a safe space where women could gain accurate and easy-to-understand breast cancer information from medical experts, while finding and connecting with each other.
Margaux Jacks (nee Garbowski) is the daughter of one of those patients. This is the first of her two-part story for the Living Beyond Breast Cancer 25th Anniversary Blog Series.
It was 1980, and I was four when my parents sat me down at our kitchen table in our ranch home in the suburbs of Philadelphia to have a talk. While I can’t recall everything that was said, one detail that would impact my life in ways I could never imagine at such a young age was when my parents brought up the “c word.” In that moment, my life changed in a profound way. Ahead of me would be a mix of highs and lows, so many sweet moments, and yet so many other terrifying ones. Whether we liked it or not, we were in for the roller coaster ride that is a cancer diagnosis.
At the age of four, I didn’t ask about my Mom, Nancy S. Garbowski, living or dying. And I was unaware that Mom could die. I knew she was going to the hospital, and hospitals made people better, right? She would be ok, the doctors would fix her, that’s what doctors do. I drew her a card to take to the hospital, on construction paper, with pretty flowers and signed it with love.
I can’t imagine what was going through my Mom’s mind. She always seemed so calm about it with me. She must have been so scared, as her Mom had died of metastatic breast cancer when she was four; her Mom was just the young age of 31. Was history going to repeat itself?
When she came home, I saw her scar from the amputation. In my little voice, I called it the train tracks. It was one long red line about one-half to one-inch thick in sections that went from the center of her chest all the way into her armpit. It had equally thick cross lines, same red that gave it the train track look. She smiled at my observation. I’m guessing she enjoyed my innocence.
Mom healed and life went on. She didn’t talk about cancer with me. When the next one came, I was a few years older, and understood more. When Mom was not feeling well, we would hunker down as a family — helping each other with all the routine chores of life, while making sure Mom was as comfortable as possible. While Mom, Dad and I bonded in such a profound way, there were also consequences, as it was stressful to be the main support for someone. Plus, I could not relate to how she was feeling. I could not provide any support in the huge decisions she faced with her treatment. My Dad shouldered a lot when it came to being there for my Mom.
We handled it together as a family. Her cancer allowed us an opportunity to share many intimate experiences, many girls would not share with their Mom at that age. During chemo I would help her walk outside and together we would blow clumps of her hair into the wind. As the locks of her hair would carry through the air, we would make a wish. I can recall the twinkle in her eyes. She was so proud to have given me life, even as hers was ending.
I held the family secret for years. I never told anyone, not a friend, not a neighbor. Finally, one day sitting with one of my best friends playing cards in our cabin at sleep away camp, I said it: “My Mom has cancer.” It felt so weird to utter the words — to see her reaction, her understanding of the seriousness of something like this. And that was it. I didn’t speak of it again for quite some time. It felt awkward to reveal something that was deeply private.
My Mom kept it mostly private too. I’m not sure how she processed all that she was enduring. But then she met someone who would help her in ways none of us imagined.
Nancy didn’t know it, but she and a small group of fellow patients were about to help in the creation of something that would forever change the way women diagnosed with breast cancer could access trustable information and connect with a community they could depend on. Margaux’s story concludes with the second part of her blog which will be published later this week.