Thursday, April 11, 2013

it is well with her (hilarious) soul.

Last fall, I became a member of a not-so-exclusive club when my mom called to tell me she had breast cancer.

Actually, she never said, "cancer," ("I don't like to use that word," she told me).

In fact, I had to go all Anderson Cooper on her to figure out what it was she was trying to say: that after her yearly mammogram and a biopsy, we had joined the millions of families battling the "c" word. 

Though no one knows when bad news is coming or how they'll react when it does, I think part of me hoped that when and if cancer ever came into my life, I might gain some life-altering perspective along with it.  Maybe I'd stop sweating the small stuff, go out of my way to be nicer to people, or at the very least choose more love.

The last six months have included, for my mom, two surgeries, endless doctor's appointments, and a list of terrible side effects often associated with cancer.  And for the rest of us, my dad, brother, sister-in-law and me, a lot of worry and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

But aside from a few more trips home and a more concerted effort to call and check in on my mom, in many ways, life in the post-cancer Gallman household(s) has been "business as usual."  No huge behavior changes or inspiring stories in the face of cancer over here. We certainly haven't let my mom's diagnosis steal our joy, but we also haven't used it as a reminder that life is precious and fleeting and therefore we should treat it as such.

For that life-goes-on attitude, I credit my parents, who even in the face of adversity, continued to behave as they always have - with bravery, optimism, and levelheadedness.  Cancer to them, is simply an unfortunate blip on life's radar; a minor setback, worthy of no more attention than what is required to get rid of it.

At first I thought my mom and dad were living in a state of denial, or perhaps they had experienced the life-altering perspective I'd longed for, but as the weeks went by, it occurred to me, that's pretty much been their attitude about everything my whole life - "Everything is going to be OK."

For better or for worse, cancer really hasn't changed any of us at all.

It has, however, given my mom the most wicked (and sometimes twisted) sense-of-humor.


Here's a sampling of just some of her best lines:

On getting my dad a glass of water: "Oh sure," (in her most dramatic martyr voice),  "Ask the woman with cancer."

On who should do the dishes: "Raise your hand if you have cancer at this table?"

On being an advocate for breast cancer: "Guess I'm going to have to start wearing hot pink.  UGH."

On me possibly not being about to go on our Christmas vacation because of work:  "Can't you just tell them your mother has cancer?" 

I did make the vacation, and brought Jacob, which also prompted another classic email exchange that included her telling me, "As for where everyone should sleep, well, I have cancer, so I don't have time to be bothered with that."


I thought she might struggle with cancer's most visible side effect - hair loss - but she's done the opposite - fully embracing losing her hair.

"Let's face it," she told me before it started to fall out, "My hair sucks.  I can't wait until it's gone."  

She's thrilled she no longer has to lug around curling irons and hair spray.  The time for her morning routine has been almost cut in half since she no longer has to wash her hair or even shave her legs. 

"The other night when I couldn't sleep," she told me, "I just laid under the covers and rubbed my legs together.  They are so smooth!"

All vanity is not gone, though.  Rest assured the woman who has always been very concerned with my appearance (examples a and b) refused to allow me to shave my own head in an act of solidarity for the struggles she would face during treatment, a la Smith from Sex and the City.

"No.  You're kidding." she said when I told her shaved heads are en vogue.  "Seriously.  Don't do that.  You're joking, right?"

We went on to talk about something else, but five more minutes in to the conversation, she clearly hadn't stopped worrying about it.

"I'm serious about your hair, Stephanie.  Don't. Shave. It." 

She also asked me to help her pick out a wig long before she actually needed one and she named it, (now the sixth member of the family), "Sassy."


The crazy wig lady (who takes wigs VERY seriously and was not amused by our antics in her shop), kept giving her outrageous styles that did not at all match her lifestyle or skin tone.  In the end, though, we chose Sassy because she looked the most like my mom's real hair.  Like her real hair with impeccable highlights on the best hair day of her life.  A decision, she says, that has been somewhat of a double-edged sword.  

One one hand, my mom says it's always nice to hear people tell her she looks great - especially since she has cancer and often feels like crap.

Only getting complimented for her fake hair has only made my mom feel bad about her real hair that she once had that now is gone.

"I think I have wig envy," she said, fearful her old real hair never did look as good as Sassy does.  She was at a dinner with friends when the non-stop compliments stopped feeling complimentary and started feeling bad.

She relayed the story to me, asking angrily, "I mean, does everyone just think that I styled my real hair all those years to look like crap?  Obviously if I could make my hair look like this, I would do it!"

I died.  She slays me.


Last month, my mom celebrated an important milestone in her journey to beating cancer, and on her last day of chemotherapy, she got to ring the ceremonial bell at Lexington Oncology Center.

Her nurses told her about the bell and said some patients invite their families and close friends to celebrate.  My mom apparently heard that suggestion as, "Feel free to invite every single person you know, bring baked goods and throw a mid-afternoon raucous party right here at the hospital!"


She invited all of the women in her life, and they showed up in large numbers; no surprise, really, since they've been supporting her and our entire family every step of the way - with meals, cards, phone calls and prayers.

They also showed up with large voices - large enough to warrant the hospital staff moving the party once and scolding us twice for being too loud.  I should mention that there was no booze at this party - just brownies and water.  Just like my mother to have friends who know how to party down, whenever and wherever they are.

In every way, they exemplify the kinds of friendships I want in my life.


The journey is not completely over - she still has seven weeks of radiation ahead.  But as of this week, and her most current mammogram, my mom is cancer free. 

She feels great - her energy level is good and, "It is well with my soul," she said in a letter to her friends.

Have no fear, though, the cancer may be gone, but her sense of humor remains. 

"I guess I'll go back to work," she said.  "I mean, I really don't want to have to fill out all that paperwork they make you fill out to take a leave of absence."

She never disappoints.


  1. This made me tear up. Your mom sounds awesome, and I'm so happy her road to recovery is going well! My mom had breast cancer almost 10 years ago, and now the whole thing just seems like a blur, but it was oh so hard at the time.

  2. i love your mom!!!! now i know where you get your fantastic sense of humor. and p.s. totally teared up reading this.
    oh - and let me know when you can play for our spring break date :)

  3. BEST BLOG POST EVER!! I love every single word and am so proud of your family for handling the "c" word with grace and humor.

  4. This was amazing, Stephanie. However, I did not know that your mom had cancer. We used to visit often and compare notes on family life. My husband and I have been living in Australia for the past year and a half and I really did not communicate with anyone from Columbia that much while I was out of the States. We are back in the States now and I saw a comment your mom made on FB so I clicked on her page. I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1999. I am a survivor, as well, and soooooo glad that Becky is one too!!!

  5. I LOVE this blog...your mom sounds awesome. Now I know where you got your awesome from. ;) Hope to see you again soon...

    1. auwe-sum (as in how y'all say it in the south) ;)