"Expect the Unexpected:" A Mother's Story of Breast Cancer

09/30/09 | Mary Ann Wasil Nilan | 3 Comments

Mary Ann Wasil Nilan with her kids kercheif
Mary Ann Wasil Nilan & Her Three Children

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, I could not have begun to predict how my three children would respond.  I was barely able to digest all I would have to endure, and had I been forced to make a prediction about the personality of each child and how they would behave in the coming months, I would have failed that test.
Betsy had just turned 13, Mary was only weeks from turning 12, and Eddy had just celebrated his 10th birthday.  I promised them I would always be honest and told them we would “kick breast cancer’s ass” together.  I allowed -- encouraged -- them to use this irreverent little phrase at any and all times.  The first time that one of the elderly women at our church cornered my kids when she thought I was out of earshot and whispered gloomily, “How’s your mother?” my son responded (way too enthusiastically), “Oh, our Mom is kicking breast cancer’s ass!”  I remember thinking to myself, “Swell.  Well at least he was smiling when he said it, and if it makes him feel good....”
Expect the unexpected.
When I “invited” my children to assist me with the post-surgical drain popping out of my chest in the days following my initial surgery to determine lymph node involvement, they reacted exactly the way I expected them to: Betsy smiled sweetly with her big wet blue eyes and said, “Of course, Mommy, I’ll help you.”  Mary looked at me, horrified, then put up her two fingers to make a cross as if warding off a vampire, screwed up her face and screeched, “Oh, gross, don’t show me that, no way, not me!”  Eddy stared blankly at me with his green eyes from under his freshly shorn crew cut and simply said, “Huh?”

Betsy was the do-gooder eldest, Mary, the outspoken second daughter, and Eddy, my checked out son. But guess what? Their initial reactions – and my expectation of each -- did not reflect how things played out. 

I would never have predicted it, but Mary eagerly became my nursemaid – reminding me at the appointed hour to follow her to the bathroom where she measured the fluid, documented it in the chart the doctor had given me, and cleaned and flushed the drain.  I didn’t even want to look at this paraphernalia, and here was this twelve year old who had told me in no uncertain terms that she would NOT be helping me in this department, taking care of me as well as, if not better than, an adult – and willingly. Lovingly.
Expect the unexpected.

My kids came with me to pick out my wigs.  I purchased two, one just like my hair pre-chemo, another long and straight, similar to my daughters’ hair.  They giggled and the girls loved the thought of us looking alike.  But by late afternoon, Betsy’s bravado and enthusiasm had abruptly worn off, and suddenly her face seemed to crack into ten different pieces as she fell into deep sobs. All the fun from wig shopping vanished in an instant.  It had been too much for her.

Expect the unexpected.

I didn’t fight my own feelings, and I encouraged them to explore their own, as well.  I told them repeatedly there were no rules when it came to how they felt and what they needed – whatever they were, the feelings and the needs, they were real, and no matter what, I supported and loved them.

There is no fighting the emotional riptide that comes with a diagnosis of breast cancer. The minute you surrender yourself to it, it actually becomes, dare I say, easier.  Having no expectations – or expecting the unexpected -- allows you to live in the moment.  Like a riptide, in order to survive it, you must swim with it, not against it.  

My children and I were never ready for my diagnosis.  What they were ready for was the evolution of themselves – into stronger, more resilient and ready-for-the-unexpected individuals.  I never expected that. 
Did I give them this gift?  I would like to say, “Oh, yes, of course, it’s all about the incredible mothering I’ve done…,” but that would be quite a stretch.  It’s actually all about letting them transform when they need to into the people they need to be.  

Incredible mothering means encouraging, supporting and loving your children during this transformation.  

Expect the unexpected, you incredible mother, you!
Mary Ann Wasil Nilan is a mother to three teens, a breast cancer kickin’ survivor & health activist, and the executive director & founder of The Get In Touch Foundation.

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  • Amazing

    Posted by charcoal, 6 October 2009.

  • Amazing story. Amazing person. Mary Ann is a great friend of mine and as far as I can remember since back in High School she has always had the resilience to live out loud and in a truly authentic way. She is an inspiration to so many people and the list of empowered women and girls continues to grow. Mary Ann Wasil Nilan is definitely one to watch as far as making a huge difference in the world.

    Posted by Peggie Hart, 1 October 2009.

  • Amazing. What a truly amazing woman Mary Ann is! She has always as far as I can remember had the resilience to live out loud and authentically. She's an inspiration to so many people and the list of empowered women and girls continues to grow!

    Posted by Peggie Hart, 1 October 2009.