Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Mother's Eyes

It is a truth universally acknowledge that every woman becomes her mother as she gets older. Not that I’ve ever been too unlike my mother.

I have always sounded a lot like her--people used to confuse us on the phone all the time. And I’ve been old that my mannerisms--the way I stand, the way I move, the way I talk--are very much like hers. And, while my personality trends more towards my Dad’s (Jenny got Mom’s personality), I am getting more and more like Mom as I get older.

I look like her. I look a lot like her. I have her tall, lanky frame, her long limbs, her long fingers. And no one would ever call either of us “curvy.” I didn’t inherit her coloring--my hair has stayed much lighter than Mom’s dark brown and my skin borders on albino while hers had more color to it--but I did get her propensity for freckles. I have her nose, her ears, and, most noticeably, her eyes. The one thing that people always remembered about Mom were her eyes and now, when I look in the mirror, I often see her looking back at me.

But there is one thing that I hope my mother didn’t pass on to me--her ovaries.

I know it seems like a silly thing to say--after all, it was those ovaries that produced me. But it was also those ovaries that left me motherless at 20. You see, Mom was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer when I was just 17. She was 43. She fought hard for almost 3 years, but before I could finish my junior year of college, she was gone. She was only 46.

The statistics say that chances of a woman suffering from ovarian cancer in her lifetime are 1 in 71. The majority of women who are diagnosed are over the age of 60. In fact, unless you have a family history of the disease, they don’t even screen for the cancer until you are 50. For someone with no family history to be diagnosed as young as Mom was is very rare. It happens in only 8% of all cases. The 5 year survival rate is less than 50% but 68% of all cases are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other organs (like Mom’s) which drops the 5 year survival rate to a paltry 30%. And for someone like me, who has a family history of the disease, the risks are tripled.

I’m not going to pretend that I spend every second of every day worrying about the future, but it certainly crosses my mind. I have the symptoms of ovarian cancer (such as they are) memorized--bloating, abdominal pain, feeling full quickly, digestive tract issues, rapid weight gain or loss. Every weird twinge, every bout of diarrhea, every time I lose a few pounds for no apparent reason I wonder if this it. I oscillate between wanting to run to the doctor for every little thing and not wanting to know. And, while I hate feeling like a hypochondriac, I recognize that the second option is potentially the fatal one. Luckily, I’ve found a doctor who understands my neurosis and takes all of my complaints seriously.

I also know that I’m doing everything I can to reduce my chances of developing ovarian cancer. As soon as I turned 25, I got myself into UK’s Ovarian Cancer Screening Program which means that I get a free ultrasound at least once a year. I’ve been on birth control pills since Mom died. I try to limit the amount of animal fats in my diet (which may be linked to a higher incidence of the cancer). I run and try to maintain good overall health. And, while I have not yet been tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (since my insurance won’t pay for it), I will get tested one day.

But all of that doesn’t mean that I don’t worry about what might be lurking in my body. I realized the other day that by the time my mother was the same age I am now, her life was more than half over. In 16 years, I will be the same age she was when she was diagnosed. In 19 years I will have out lived her. It was a sobering thought. And a scary one.

There are so many things that I wish I had asked her. So much that I just don’t know. Was she as insecure about her height as I am? How did she know that Dad was “the one?” What was it like when she and Dad started their family? Did she know something was wrong before she went to the doctor? Was there anything she overlooked?

And of course, there are the things that she won’t ever get to experience with me. She didn’t get to see either of her daughters graduate from college. We never got to take our Europe trip the summer after graduation. I will never get to introduce her to the man I will marry. She won’t be in the hospital when I have my first baby. She will never know her grandchildren.

But then I look back over the years that I got to spend with her, and I have to smile. We had a lot of fun. There was a lot of love. And I can only hope that one day I’m half as good of a parent as she was.

So, I am proud to say that I am my mother’s daughter. When people mention how alike we are, I smile and nod. I know I have my mother’s eyes. But in one way at least, I hope I am different.

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