Note: The following passages are excerpts from Laura Yeager’s chapbook, “Cancer Loot: The Stuff That Helped Me Survive Two Bouts of Cancer in Ten Years.”
My mom’s father died in 1965 from kidney failure. There weren’t enough dialysis machines to go around. After his passing, his wife and my maternal grandmother—Nana—lived in Akron with her husband’s mother, my great grandmother. Then, things got a little dull, and she decided to move up to Lake Erie. Nana liked to smoke and have a few whiskies at night. Gram, her mother-in-law, didn’t take to that.
She picked Lorain, Ohio, with an apartment right on the lake. The apartment also had an outdoor pool, which we grandchildren adored.
Nana was a photographer, and she was a broke one with no savings. She procured a photography job in downtown Cleveland at a department store. But she didn’t have a reliable car. She took three buses every morning and night to get to Cleveland and to return home. For a woman in her late 50s, living on her own, this was no small accomplishment.
What was Nana’s gift to me? Grit.
In 2016, I noticed a red splotch on my right breast. At that point, I was having every out-of-the-ordinary mark or spot on my breasts checked out by my doctors. My radiologist determined that the spot was an angiosarcoma that had developed from my radiation treatment in 2012 for my first cancer.
Another cancer, and one that had sprung up from prior cancer treatment, didn’t seem fair.
But I put my head down and plowed through a second major surgery to remove it. I relied on my grandmother’s strength. Truly, whenever I had to do something hard, I thought of Nana taking three buses to work in high heels and a polyester aqua dress.
Well, I got through that. It’s now been five years since that second cancer. My oncologist said I was out of the woods with that one, and if it were going to return, it would have by now.
I loved to think of Nana’s nightly routine after riding three buses home from downtown Cleveland, smelling like photograph developer fluid. She did it all; she shot the pics, developed them, cropped them and framed them.
When Nana would get home, she’d slip into her bathing suit. She’d sneak out to the pool under the stars with a blow-up raft and gently slide into the water, which was cold because the pool was unheated. Nana would float around all alone until about midnight. The sky was so beautiful at night.
Then, it was time for a piece of cold fried chicken or crackers and goose liver. Eating sparingly was how she kept her figure.
Boy, my figure had deteriorated. By 2016, I’d lost my breasts—they’d taken out the implants; I had no nipples, and I’d gained 30 pounds. Quite frankly, I didn’t care. I was alive. My son Tommy was eleven then and doing much better. My marriage was solid. I had strong family support and many friends.
Using Nana’s gift of grit, I got by. My brother liked to say, “You’re just like Nana.”
I guess I was. Nana was a wild child. If my health hadn’t been so poor, I probably would have been more of one, too.
Once, when Nana was asleep on the floor in the middle of summer, a man started to climb through her open window. She grabbed a cigarette lighter that looked like a pistol and pointed it at him. “Get the hell out of here,” she said.
It was things like this that she did to continually save her own life.
In recovering from major illnesses, a person had to use all her resources.
The will for survival was in my genes. Grit is “courage and strength of character.” If I do say so myself, that’s what I had.
Thank you, Nana. Thank you for the gift of grit.
[excerpted from “Cancer Loot,” chapter five]
Mom felt helpless when I got cancer because she had always protected me. Most mothers watched over their daughters carefully, but my mom took safeguarding me to an extreme.
For instance, we lived on a dead-end street, with little traffic of any kind. The only folks who came down the street pulled into their driveways. Nevertheless, when I was about six years old and wanted to cross the street to go play with Billy and Brian, the neighbor children, my mother made me inform my great grandmother (Gram) that I wanted to cross. Gram was usually ironing, but she’d stop when I summoned her and would accompany me outside and go into the street like a crossing guard, making sure I got across safely.
Then, when I was a teenager, the big thing to do was “TP” your beloved’s house. TPing was covering trees with toilet paper. You did this by heaving a roll of toilet paper high into the sky, and with any luck, it snagged onto a tree branch and the paper cascaded down to the ground. Throwing the rolls of paper into the tree went on until the job was done (when the whole tree was completely covered in paper), or the cops came. If a girl TP’d a boy in the neighborhood, that meant she adored him.
“My mother took a backseat and doctored me as well, but in her own way.“
One night, I told my mother that my best friend Jan and I were going to TP a boy’s house. It might seem strange that I told her, but again, we were very close, and I had to tell her where I was going so that she could look out for me. This protection business went two ways.
Well, she had an idea that night. She wanted to drive Jan and me to the boy’s house so that we could TP it and no one would bother us. I guess she thought that if the cops came, she would be our quick getaway.
Jan and I turned her down.
Mom did come up with a wonderful idea for how to watch over me when I was in college. It was my dream to go to New York City. But the idea terrified her, and she wouldn’t let me go. Yet mom was the creative type, and she put her mind to the issue for a few weeks. She did a little research and learned that New York University rented out dorm rooms to people during the summer months. Five hundred dollars bought me a room of my own (with four little cots) and two meals a day.
What a wonderful time I had! I worked temp jobs the whole month at places such as Hart, Schaffner and Marx, where a woman named Jean taught me how to type tables full of numbers. (This was long before computers.)
In the morning before I left for work, I’d go to the cafeteria and eat breakfast. There was a sweet cook who always told me to take a bagel sandwich for lunch as well as one for breakfast. The whole NYU staff seemed to be looking out for the group of outsiders who flew in for the summer.
Even after I graduated from college and was “out of her jurisdiction,” my mom found ways to look out for me. Daily phone calls became the norm.
Flash forward 28 years to 2011. The first cancer diagnosis came with no warning. It was discovered during a routine mammogram.
Mom knew when she was beat. She couldn’t protect me anymore, so she did the next best thing. She let the doctors do their jobs. She didn’t even offer them any advice. And I did have wonderful doctors.
My mother took a backseat and doctored me as well, but in her own way. She used food.
When I had daily radiation treatments in 2012, she made dinner for my husband, my son and me every night. That was her gift to me, to us.
Salisbury steak, fried chicken, baked stuffed pork chops, rib eyes. But the best part was the two salads. She made fruit salad for us AND tossed spinach salad. If we weren’t getting our nutrients prior to my cancer, we were then.
My mother was now 90 years old. I’d drive her around and pick out shoes for her. We’d go out to eat at drive-thrus, and I’d bake her zucchini bread. I adored my mother.
She is living to see me cancer-free. God, what a gift that was!
[excerpted from “Cancer Loot,” chapter seven]
Laura Yeager is a women’s health writer with over 10 years of experience writing for mental and physical health venues. From 2015–2020, she blogged regularly for psychcentral.com on topics such as bipolar illness and autism. Since 2016, she’s blogged for curetoday.com on the topic of finding happiness after a cancer diagnosis. Her earlier health writing was anthologized in 2012’s “Voices of the Women’s Health Movement,” edited by Barbara Seaman and Laura Eldridge. A graduate of The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa, Laura teaches writing at Gotham Writers and at Kent State University at Stark. More of her cancer writing can be found at curetoday.com/contributors/laura-yeager. Laura Yeager lives in Ohio with her husband and son.