How mother and daughter helped each other through breast cancer

Roberta Shank and her daughter Shari Young pictured on Oct. 9, 2020. The mother-daughter duo are breast cancer survivors. CONTRIBUTED
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Roberta Shank and her daughter Shari Young pictured on Oct. 9, 2020. The mother-daughter duo are breast cancer survivors. CONTRIBUTED

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and, like many of you, I’ve had family members receive cancer diagnoses and fight like mad to survive.

Some did, thankfully, and some did not. But this is a conversation between my mother, Shari Young, diagnosed in 2013, and her mother, my grandmother Roberta Shank, diagnosed in 2017: A mother and daughter who helped each other get through breast cancer and all of the pain and uncertainty that comes with it with grace, humor, food, and stubbornness.

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Shari’s Diagnosis Story

For the last year of my father’s life, my mother had to wear many hats — mother to two 20-something women to worry about, busy architecture industry professional, and caretaker to her husband of 25 years who was dying of colon cancer. Moving past the grief of an untimely passing isn’t easy. Grief isn’t just something you feel after someone is gone, as it turns out, you can fully grieve the loss of someone while they’re still alive, so when you add it all up, we had certainly experienced a lot of grief the last years of his life and years after.

But each year following his death started to show a little light around the edges and in the summer of 2013, my mother, Shari, was planning her honeymoon with her husband, Donnie Young, settling into their new home, and finally getting the fresh start she’d been praying for. It was jarring for my mother to realize one day during all this that she felt a lump. But without hesitation, she called her doctor to make an appointment where they did find cancer – hiding behind what turned out to be a benign lump.

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Roberta’s Diagnosis Story

My grandmother, Roberta, had been getting regularly scheduled mammograms for decades and occasionally moved the appointments around if she was busy or something came up. In 2017, she did just that, moving the appointment and having it later in the year than she normally would. During her appointment, which she still thought was routine, she noticed that her mammogram technician was talking more than usual about what the next steps would be if cancer was found, but she assumed she was just being informative.

After she got dressed and prepared to move on with her errands for the day, the technician mentioned that maybe instead she should just go home. This was the first time it dawned on her that something could be amiss. Sure enough, she got the call. “Because of my age, I was surprised but it didn’t scare me, actually I was prepared to go through a great deal more than I did because of what Shari went through a few years before,” explains Roberta about receiving the diagnosis.

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Lauren Rinehart (from left), sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk 2016. CONTRIBUTED

Lauren Rinehart (from left), sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk 2016. CONTRIBUTED
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Lauren Rinehart (from left), sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk 2016. CONTRIBUTED

‘I Felt Like She Would Be OK’

Shari: “Finding out that mom had cancer was a surprise, but I felt like she would be OK. It was caught very early and we were assured it was a slow-growing cancer — plus, it didn’t show up the year before, which seemed like a good sign.”

Roberta: “I just felt like Shari would get through it. Even though it was a fast-growing cancer, it seemed like the doctors were ready to throw everything they had at it, so I was optimistic she’d make it.”

Shari: “Unlike your father’s diagnosis with colon cancer, we didn’t have the burden of thinking we were going to die. My radiation doctor right off the bat said, ‘this is curable,’ and I believed him.”

Roberta: “My surgeon said the same thing, so I didn’t think it was similar to his experience. Actually, we both were told throughout both of our processes that things would be OK. But remembering what it was like for another family member, even with a totally different type of cancer — seeing them go through it helps you prepare for your own. You know you’ll have to kick butt to stay in the fight.”

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Hurry Up and Wait

Shari: “One of the worst things about being diagnosed with breast cancer is that you’re in shock basically and already having to make decisions — but then there’s also a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ moments. Until things get going, the cruelest part of the whole thing is ‘oh it’s fast-growing, we’ve got to attack this, we’ll get you in for a port in… 2 weeks?’”

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Before a past Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Dayton, Lauren Rinehart, sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank got pink manicures to match their pink walking gear. CONTRIBUTED

Before a past Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Dayton, Lauren Rinehart, sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank got pink manicures to match their pink walking gear. CONTRIBUTED
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Before a past Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Dayton, Lauren Rinehart, sister Beth Weeks, mother Shari Young and grandmother Roberta Shank got pink manicures to match their pink walking gear. CONTRIBUTED

Some Good Things, Too

Shari: "Communication was thankfully improved since my husband had cancer in 2007. When he had it, I had to physically go to the hospital to pick up records to take to his doctors to save time. It was the only way to get anything moving. By 2013, information seemed to travel much easier.

“What people might not know about getting chemo is that it’s kind of like a social club in a way – you get to know the people there, the patients, their stories. It’s really not a depressing, sad place. Everyone is very up, very motivated and hopeful. When you graduate from it, it’s almost bittersweet because you might not really see these people again. In that respect, I almost miss going there. It’s definitely not all doom and gloom all the time like you might imagine.”

Tips for Breast Cancer Patients

Shari: “Having someone to go with you to each appointment is vital. You can’t always take in what the doctor is saying to you. Having someone there to be a second set of eyes and ears helps you keep from missing important details you want to remember.”

Roberta: “Also if the person who goes with you knows your whole history, that’s helpful when doctors, nurses, and technicians have questions. When I would go with Shari, they would come up to her and ask a question and all she could do is stare at them blankly sometimes — that’s chemo brain.”

Shari: “Keep a notebook. Notetaking can help you keep it all together in one place and put your papers in one spot. Plus keep track of your side effects, feelings, etc. It’s all really helpful information you could need.”

Roberta: “Stay in the hospital after the mastectomy surgery if possible. There’s aftercare you’ll want to have someone show you; reading the steps isn’t always enough if you’ve never dealt with it before.”

Shari: “Accept help from others. If you don’t have to go it alone, don’t.”

Roberta: “Sometimes you’ll have to improvise. For instance, the bandages they send you home from the hospital with to absorb fluids around the incision is nothing compared to menstrual pads – you’ll want those on hand because if you have any issues, they can’t always get you in right away and pads work wonders at absorbing moisture – it’s what they’re designed to do, after all. It will at least work until you can get some help. You have stuff stuck out of you that you’ve never had before.”

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What Was Worse?

Shari: “It was worse knowing she had it, for sure.”

Roberta: “When you have it, it’s not as big of a deal as when someone else has it. You can’t do anything for their pain; it’s a powerless position to be in.”

Shari: “It’s like you can’t do anything to make them more comfortable.”

Final Words of Advice

Shari: “Don’t give up. You’ll go through all the stages of grief repeatedly, and not in order. You have to keep eating, even if the food tastes awful. You have to keep drinking water, even if you don’t want to. You have to keep moving, even when you’re exhausted. You can’t give into it; keep busy, keep your mind busy.”

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