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To the Woman Taking Care of Everyone but Yourself

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I turned 40 years old two months ago, and I believe I have a lot to show for these decades. I got married. And then divorced. I’ve been caretaker to my mom during her breast cancer. And again with her uterine cancer. I’ve traveled to 18 countries. I’ve lived in five states. I’ve mentored more than 50 women. I had my first breast tumor removed at 21 and my second at 22. I’ve had 40 breast ultrasounds and two mammograms to make sure we catch what’s next. I’ve given two eulogies. I’ve worked for eight companies. And I’ve founded three of my own.

Now I have new numbers to add. Two of my friends have multiple sclerosis (MS). One friend has uterine cancer. One has Cushing’s disease. And as of one week ago, my best friend since age 12 has tongue cancer. None of these five friends have reached 40.  

And their common denominator? All of them are oldest or only daughters.

I am not a scientist, a sociologist or an anthropologist. I do not write this bearing scientific proof, although I am now determined to find it. I do not write bearing any agenda except to open eyes a little wider. I do not write to protect a daughter, although I mother in many different ways.

All of us only/oldest daughters were raised to be the “helper,” the “big sister,” the “protector,” the “one to make things better” for everyone else. That was our role. A role mostly asked of us, given to us and many times, yes, assumed of us. We are a tribe of people-pleasers. Of self-de-prioritizers. We have to be reminded to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first. We absorb resentment. We swallow the need for attention. We silence our own personal needs to champion our brothers, our younger sisters or our parents.

I have many, many more oldest/only daughter friends who are on the brink of disease. Who bathe in and out of depression medications. Who drink to numb their truth. Who pour themselves into work for the sake of validating their worth. For the sake of maybe finally being enough.  

This manifesto is a wake-up call to the incredible, the generous and the selfless women of my generation. I know I am not alone in having too many friends that are struggling with diagnoses too young.  

After three days together navigating a cancer center in Houston and now on a plane to LA for a second opinion, I watch as my best friend – whose own mom died of cancer when she was 5 – sleeps against the window. She’s done nothing in her life but mother her sister, be caretaker to her father, champion eight younger cousins and now be a single mom to her daughter. She’s done nothing but take care of others, and now it is her turn to be taken care of. Her one catalyst came in the form of cancer on the organ that is essential for her to be heard: her mouth. There’s no irony in this. Only the sobering truth of what she represents.   

I challenge you, selfless one, to embrace self-care. To acknowledge you are not invincible. To recognize it is time to put yourself first. How many catalysts does it/should it/must it take for you to finally stop fearing others’ judgments, and to understand the reality and the mortality of your own life? There is no embossed badge, no shiny trophy, no freshly baked chocolate chip cookie given to you for being sick with fear over others’ points of view instead of solely focusing on your own.

I challenge you, selfless one, to strive to give yourself the love and support you deserve.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Share a story about one moment or conversation related to a cancer diagnosis or experience that made an impact on you. Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Originally published: July 15, 2016
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