Talking to My Mom about Her Breast Cancer, 40 Years Later

My mom got breast cancer in 1974 and survived. I feel incredibly lucky that she’s here, that’s she’s 76 years young, and that I have been afforded a lifetime with her. In fact, I feel so lucky, that I hardly ever think about it.

Aside from her urging my sister and me to get annual mammograms (which, as dutiful daughters, we do), we never really talk about her cancer very much. So I thought, on the occasion of this issue, I would.

Margit’s mom in her 20s, basking in the glow. (Photo courtesy Margit Detweiler)

Mom, how did you discover the lump?

I discovered it in the shower. It was probably near the surface of my skin. It was hot to the touch, warm. My mother had breast cancer in 1954, so I was well aware of what it could be.

But she survived that for a while, right?

Well, it spread. Not extremely fast, but it spread into her lungs and brain and she died in 1963.

So after you self-diagnosed it, what did you do next?

I don’t remember much. I remember going to HUP (Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania). They took a biopsy and found it was malignant. We didn’t have the reconstruction option in those days. It was mastectomy, period. Until then, that had been about the only treatment, and there was some early chemo but I think it was not very effective. They also tested some of the tissue from under my arm — lymph gland tissue. It was positive and that was bad. I remember the surgeon saying, “Now I’m gonna have to send you to one of those damn chemotherapists.”

I was sent to see this brand-new doctor at Penn whose name was John Glick. Since then he has become extremely famous in the field. There’s a big portrait of him in the Abramson Cancer Center, he’s really top notch. We still reminisce about it.

He’s still your doctor?

I still see him once a year.

Did they give you medication?

I think I was on Tamoxifen, which I took for something like 10 years or five years. I don’t really remember. Then I had radiation therapy every day. I had to go into Penn from Worcester. Every day.

I don’t even remember you looking or feeling sick.

No, well that’s the thing. In those days you stayed in the hospital longer. I would have been away for a while.

I was about 7 years old. I don’t have any memory of that. I just remember spending time with a family that babysat us.

Yes, and Dad would take you to the office from time to time. He took you to school. He really stepped up and did a lot while I was recovering. And I had a lot of support from your Grandmom and Grandpop. We didn’t want to talk about it — it’s too much for little kids.

Were you worried?

Oh yeah, I kept thinking, I have these three little children. Would I see them grow up? What would happen to them? Although I had a lot of confidence in Dad. There’s no question he would have taken good care of you. But you can’t help but think about that.

Did the doctors tell you your chances were good or was it a matter of waiting and seeing?

Wait and see. And go back quite often. I still have a mammogram every year. And guess what, when I get a mammogram I only have to do one side! Ha!

It’s never pleasant.

I think they’re horrible. It always hurts my sternum. The bone in the middle of your chest.

It’s almost barbaric.

They’ve got to come up with something better than squeeze until you scream.

Were there ever moments when you worried about the superficial consequences?

You mean like having a breast gone? That seemed irrelevant. Of course if I were a single person and still dating, I might have thought more about it, but I was in a long-term relationship to say the least. [Laughs] It’s nice these days that you can get a breast back. And then at least you’re symmetrical.

What about genetic testing? Neither you or I have done it and my gynecologist is always yelling at me to do it.

I’m very ambivalent.

I am too, I think, but then what does that tell me? What do I do with this information?

I feel very guilty that I have not done that. I have the forms. What I don’t quite know about is preventative mastectomy. It seems so draconian.

I guess it suggests that there’s a much more significant risk, so maybe I’d be more aggressive in my testing if that were the case. But I get a mammogram every year.

Even though my mother had it, it might not be genetic. The tendency when it’s genetic is for the next generation to get it at a younger age. I was 36 when I was diagnosed and my mother was in her 40s. And I think you girls have passed your 30s. So that’s probably just wishful thinking but…I hope it’s a good sign.

Fingers crossed. Have you ever thought, if it wasn’t genetic, what it could be?

Diet, possibly. After the war, in the later 40s and 50s, everyone went wild on steak and butter. All the stuff you couldn’t get much of during the war. Our diet was high in fat and I’ve often thought that may have contributed. My mother was a Swedish cook so she cooked with lots of butter and everything was delicious. I had eggs and bacon just about every morning for breakfast. Exercise wasn’t big, and I think exercise helps. I started jogging as I recovered. I don’t know why but it made me feel better.

You’ve always taken good care of yourself. You exercise, eat basically healthy stuff….

That was something I learned from the experience [of having cancer]. That was all that Adelle Davis stuff. Those books on nutrition. Then I learned she died of cancer. Oops.

Did you ever make any deals with God?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Let me live to see my kids grow up. But I didn’t promise him anything. [Laughs] It was all one-sided.

Phew. How else did going through that change your view on life?

I tried to ignore it as much as possible. It didn’t take long to recover. Getting a mastectomy is not like gall bladder surgery. It’s not internal. The wound takes some time to heal, but it doesn’t really debilitate you that much.

There’s no stigma any more about cancer. Was there a stigma back when you were diagnosed?

When my mother had it, you didn’t talk about it. Cancer was almost like a dirty word. Not so much when I had it. Maybe you didn’t talk about it much because it was just such a dark subject.

Now people are throwing parties, their friends are shaving their heads in solidarity

Strangely, I never lost my hair.

Even through radiation?

Maybe what they gave me wasn’t as severe or something?

If you had it today do you think you would memorialize it in some way? Would you get a tattoo?

[Laughs] I would never get a tattoo. That’s so remote from my thought. I’m 76 years old! I’m just grateful for the extra years.

We all are, Mom.

And sometimes I take it for granted. But then every once in a while I do think about it and think, maybe I’ll live until I’m 90. Then I think, well, probably not, given my history. And then on the other hand, you just never know.


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4 Responses

  1. Kimodonnel

    Hooray for Susan, and hooray for you Margit, for sharing her story. Love this.

  2. MargitDetweiler

    Thanks Kim 🙂

  3. Shelly "Splinters" Rabuse

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this story. I remember when you told me that your mom had had cancer and I was shocked! My mom and I never spoke of it and although she was ok for 15 years, it eventually took her life. I’m so glad your mom is till around,

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