My grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer two days before Chinese New Year. Before her trip to the States, she had felt a lump in her breast and wisely (for peace of mind, because what you don’t know for sure can’t really worry you) chose to get it biopsied after her month-long vacation. She didn’t think it would be anything, but it was very much something and the night she received her diagnosis she called my aunt’s house on the sixth floor. My cousin and I were sprawled out on the couch, watching an old movie on HBO when the phone rang. Languidly, I reached over and picked up. My grandmother’s voice was somber and immediately I sensed something was wrong, but she did not want to speak to me. Instead, she asked if my aunt was home.
My aunt took the receiver and after a brief moment said, “Oh god.” And then, “Stop crying. Stop crying. You have options, don’t cry.”
It could be worse, like many things, but at the same time, it could not be worse. It’s stage one, but to be safe, my grandmother has decided to have her whole breast removed. I was horrified at first, thinking, “Why, if radiation treatments will do?” But doctors have seen their fair share of women who, opting to just have radiation treatments for stage one, regret it years later when the cancer comes back with a vengeance and takes away more than their breasts.
I did speak to my grandmother that night, but not because I wanted to. She insisted to my aunt that she was fine, and that she wanted to be alone. Because I was sitting stone-faced in front of the TV, my aunt, cousin and uncle thought I could comfort her without becoming too emotional. They pushed the receiver to me, whispering for me to tell grandma that we would go pick her up and bring her here, so she wouldn’t have to pass the night alone – but I knew better. Common sense tells us that people, when faced with grief, need company. But experience tells me that solitude is the first and necessary step to accepting grief. What makes us strongest is the knowledge that there are certain moments we can handle alone. Because other people- our husbands and wives, our friends and family – as much as we want or hope, they too, can die and disappear. My grandma, having recently lost two siblings and her husband, knows this better than most people.
Thus when I took the phone, I wanted my grandmother to know that I would be there for her, in whatever capacity I could – but most of all, I wanted her to be strong. But I was not strong enough. My voice cracked as soon as I said hello and before she could say anything at all I was crying and she was softly trying to comfort me. “It’s okay, it’s okay!” she said, “It’s only stage one, see? You don’t have anything to worry about.”
For the time being, she is doing better. She has adapted to this new knowledge of herself and last night, called with the decision to have the breast removed. Her voice was steady, as was mine and what I had first sensed as false cheer was her new-found resolve.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She was silent for a moment as though she wasn’t sure, but she was just searching for the right words. “By removing the whole breast,” she said, “I give myself the best chance possible.”
I nodded into the receiver, silenced by her bravery.