On this Mother’s Day we honor Megan Do Nascimento and her mother Mary Small Gershman, both young breast cancer survivors. Surprisingly with four women in her family having breast cancer, Megan's illness was not genetic. In her own words, Megan talks about their journeys and answers a few questions about what her experience was like and how her mother helped her through the disease she’d had herself nearly 35 years before her daughter.
My mom was diagnosed at 34 with three young daughters (12, 10 and 6 months). Even as the eldest, I wasn't told she had cancer, but rather that she a tumor/cyst that had to be removed. My best friend’s mother is the one who let the cat out of the bag when she told her daughter. I found out my mom had cancer while standing in the changing room of the ballet studio where I practiced. After that, everyone knew.
Mom had a unilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy. I owe most of my strength to her as I watched her cook dinner and raise three young girls while undergoing chemo.
When I was diagnosed with stage IIB Invasive Ductal Carcinoma at age 45, my mother was my rock. She stood right next to me during every stage of my cancer journey. She did not miss one appointment and even slept in my room for two nights after my mastectomy. I remember when the doctor came into my room to check on me, and asked how I was doing, my mom responded: "I am doing great.” Mom helped me figure out and work my drains at home. I couldn't look at them; they grossed me out a bit, and I felt like an octopus.
I did six rounds of chemo and had a nipple-sparing bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I am an indoor cycling instructor, so while undergoing chemo, I taught six-eight cycling classes per week; it is what kept me sane. All of those steroids made me want to punch a wall in!
I think the reason why I did so well was because my Mom was with me every step of the way. If I had a question or was mad and wanted to vent, she was there. She was my guardian angel, and I am so proud to be her daughter.
My mom knows all of the lingo, knows the right questions to ask the doctors, and knows when to give you space. I love you Mom! And I can't thank you enough.
Tell me about your relationship with you mom and what it was like when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was 12 years old when my mother was diagnosed, so I didn't have much of a close relationship with her. I remember being scared that she might die, and there was always a line of people visiting her, gifts galore and flowers everywhere. She was, and is, very well-loved. My mother is from a family of nine, so she had a lot of their support as well. I kept my distance a bit because she always had a crowd of friends around, and I didn't really feel like I could connect. I had to help raise my 10-year-old and six-month-old sisters and take over a lot of the chores in the house. My dad had a very hard time dealing with my mom’s illness, so I stepped in a lot. He has, however, been amazing with my cancer journey.
How did your own experience with breast cancer differ from hers? What was the support system between the two of you like?
My own experience totally differed from my mom’s. She didn't know the stage and type of tumor, and she had more of a radical mastectomy. My mom was 34 and was breastfeeding her six-month-old child when she found out she had breast cancer. She had the support of her friends and family, but there was little known about breast cancer then. They also didn't have Facebook or support meetings at that time, either. I was 45 with two grown teenagers when I was diagnosed. My mother took on the role of being a caregiver and was with me every step of the way. My mother discovered that breast cancer was not a life sentence for me and that what happened to her 35 years ago was totally different from my experience. My mom experienced a lot of nausea, while I was hardly nauseous during my six months of chemotherapy. Mom had to relearn everything when I went through it. It was almost like it was another disease. Now we have options she didn’t have like types of treatment, different options for reconstruction, neoadjuvant therapy, hormone therapy, cute clothes, scarves and bras that make women feel sexy and whole.
What sort of guidance or 'advice' do you have for others who have gone through breast cancer, but are now navigating that 'new normal?' What is something you've learned as you've gone through treatment and the aftermath?
My advice to other women out there who have been recently diagnosed is to join Facebook support groups for survivors and use organizations like Living Beyond Breast Cancer to receive and offer support to others. Get active if you are up to it - walk, practice yoga. Open up to friends and family wanting to hear about how you’re doing. Don't suffer in silence; ask people for help if you need it. No one knows what we need and how we are feeling. Communicate. I was very open from the beginning of my journey because I wanted to educate other women about getting mammograms, and show them that just because we have a cancer diagnosis we still want to be invited to the parties, hang out with friends and lead a normal life. I gained so many amazing friends from this diagnosis and lost a couple who refused or couldn't support me during this time. Unfortunately, you find out real fast who your friends are during a crisis. Both mom and I have become huge yogis because of my diagnosis. I began practicing yoga during my treatment and got so hooked on it, I finished my teacher training in July. My mother, aunt and dad now practice with me. Yoga saved all of us from depression and feeling scared about our future. I didn't change a thing during my cancer journey, and there was a never a new normal. I am more active now than I was two years ago and a shoulder to lean or cry on with my warrior sisters all over the world.
Megan is a yoga teacher, indoor cycling instructor and bilingual orthodontic representative. Her aunt Susan Hirst lost her life to metastatic breast cancer at 60, and her aunt Diane Donnelly is currently in treatment for stage 0 DCIS. She and her mother continue to take on new adventures every day.