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How My Grandmother’s Cervical Cancer Diagnosis Gave Me a Reality Check

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Alyssa is the Community Manager of NewLifeOutlook. Her goal is to create a supportive, resourceful and safe place for those with conditions to come together and exchange questions and advice. In her free time, you can find Alyssa hoarding beauty products, spending time with her ex-racehorse, Village, and blogging at her style and beauty blog, The Wolf and the Wardrobe.

I was sitting in my Toronto apartment when my mom, several hours away, broke the news. “I don’t want you to worry,” she started.

So of course, I was instantly worried.

I hadn’t realized how warm my apartment was for April. We didn’t have an air conditioning unit and we were on the top floor of the renovated home that had been converted into three units. The heat was rising and our neighbors below us had a new baby who was crying in the background.

I was perched on the edge of our couch which, a year ago, we somehow managed to drag up two flights of stairs. I picked on the edge of the leather armrest where my cat had left several holes after using it as a scratching post.

“Grandma is in the hospital.”

I realized I was holding my breath.

“Her gynecologist found something during her last checkup. She hadn’t been in ages.” Now that I thought about it, neither had I.

My parents were always trying to shelter my sister and me from news that could be perceived as traumatic. We grew up in the country outside of a small town that was home to 1,800 people. There were 19 people in my eighth grade class. Everyone knew everyone. It was one of the reasons I so desperately wanted to get away when college came around.

That felt selfish now — to want to leave my family.

I had been living in the city for three years and just recently returned to my apartment, which I shared with one-and-a-half roommates (one of them crashed on our couch three days a week) after a stint in New York with my modeling agency. I made it home for major holidays and summer vacation, but school and work had occupied a lot of my time and I hadn’t made much of an effort beyond that.

My mom mentioned the word “cancer” and much of our conversation after that was a blur.

As it turns out, my grandma had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and also had a tumor on her ovary that required she have a full hysterectomy.

I remember feeling helpless. Sitting on the couch picking at my fingers with tears stinging the back of my eyes and imagining a possible future without the matriarch of our family in it. I thought about walking down the aisle without her there, about having a child and not having her there to hold him/her despite how much she absolutely adored babies.

I got off the phone with my mom and packed up my bag to head to the train station. My agent was calling me but instead of leaping to answer the phone as I had been known to do in the past, I turned it to silent and stared out the train window at the familiar houses and landmarks as we passed through. Cityscapes turned into sporadic buildings, fields and dirt roads as I neared home.

I remember seeing my grandmother in the hospital for the first time. She was post-surgery, pale, her hair slicked back with sweat. My grandma wasn’t old — only in her late 60s — but she looked aged now.

I smiled when I saw her. I asked her how she was doing. She told me she was OK — she kept telling me she was OK. And then she started to cry.

I had never seen my grandma cry up until this point. She was the rock in our family, easing difficult moments with humor. But in this moment, she looked soft, tired and unsure if what she was saying was truth. I assured her she was in fact OK. That things from here would only get better, even though she was just at the beginning of her journey.

It’s five years later now. When in the hospital, my grandmother learned about the importance of routine checkups (and never fails to preach this to us at Thanksgiving dinners when speaking about our blessings), and she still incorporates her learnings about foods for ovarian cancer patients when she hosts a family dinner — what she should be eating to help her regain her strength and encourage her body to retain nutrients, as well as assist her with her healing.

She was bustling around the kitchen one afternoon preparing vegetables when she announced that after five years of appointments, she was finally cancer-free.

Five years ago I received a reality check.

I hadn’t realized just how much I had taken my family for granted and how focused on my personal journey and growth I was. What I failed to realize was as I continued to grow older, my loved ones did, too.

Since my grandma’s cancer diagnosis I have not missed a birthday, a holiday or a chance to have dinner with my loved ones. I’ve been more present, engaged and devoted to making memories with my family.

The other day my grandma was over for my sister’s birthday dinner. We were sitting outside in the sunshine on my parents’ patio and she gushed over my rose gold necklace and the way it caught the sunshine. I took it off then and handed it to her, telling her she could have it. Material things used to bring me such joy, but that joy is nothing like what I experienced when my grandmother’s face lit up at my gesture and she excitedly draped the necklace around her neck.

Do not take for granted the opportunities you have to spend time with those who are important to you.

Do not take for granted the opportunities you have to tell those who are important to you just how important they are.

And, as my grandmother continues to preach, do not take for granted the importance of a routine checkup.

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Thinkstock photo by Melpomenem

Originally published: September 25, 2017
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