“When Mom Was My Age” is an interview series between daughters and mothers. New interviews appear every Monday. If you would like to participate, contact Jane.
The following interview is with Katie Urbani, interviewed by her daughter Ellen Urbani (mid-40s).
Introduction from Ellen (daughter)
When my mother was my age, she lost her left breast to cancer. (“Nana’s lost breast” my children call it, euphemistically referring to the empty place in her shirt on those days when she leaves the prosthesis tucked away in her bureau drawer.)
Such events are easy markers, and in the intervening decades I have frequently looked back and thought, “That is where so much of the person I have become began.” I know my mother has done the same. Like a landscape laid bare by a blaze, our entire family re-grew fresh and somewhat altered from the wounded but resilient roots of that time.
Where were you living at that time?
In Leesburg, Virginia.
What did a typical day look like before your diagnosis, and what did you believe the future held for you?
I had been a stay-at-home mom with my three girls most of their lives, working at their schools as a volunteer many hours each week, and I was also very involved in our church. But once [the youngest] started middle school I took a part-time job as a patient-care assistant at a local chiropractor’s office. When I was young I wanted to be a nurse; that never happened, but this job turned out to be a good fit. As for the future, I guess I didn’t think a lot about that in terms of me. I saw myself staying in my job until my kids all graduated high school and I saw us getting all you girls through college. After that, I didn’t think much about it. I figured something would come up. I just wasn’t expecting it to be breast cancer.
Prior to that, what were your biggest worries?
I worried about the welfare and happiness of my family. [My husband] had a heart attack at age 43. Afterward he still smoked and didn’t exercise or eat well; that was a big concern. You kids were teenagers and life was changing. It had been easier when you were all younger—we did more things together and it felt like a more controlled environment. Naturally, with the changes that come when kids become teens, I worried about wanting you girls to enjoy yourselves but not give you free rein. That give and take isn’t easy to figure out.
How did you learn of the diagnosis?
I’d had a mammogram, and the radiologist called me at home later that evening to say he’d identified early-stage breast cancer. I was home by myself—your dad was out of town—and I was on my way out the door to a friend’s post-holiday party when I took the call. I didn’t want to let my friend down, so I went to the party anyway. It was the strangest experience. It was a gathering of people from church, all of whom, for the past few months, had joined together to nurse two dear friends who were dying of cancer. The second funeral had taken place just a few weeks earlier, and this was the first time we’d all been together for a happy occasion since then. Under the circumstances, I didn’t feel like I could stand up and say, “Guess what? I’ve got breast cancer.” Instead I sat there, with all these happy people celebrating around me, feeling as if I had fallen into a swimming pool and was drowning. It was as if I could see everyone floating around me, but no one noticed that I’d slipped under the water, and I couldn’t find any way to communicate with them that I needed help.
Why did you choose to have a mastectomy instead of opting for an alternative treatment?
Even though it was a very early stage, it was the most aggressive form of breast cancer—the same kind my friend had died from a few weeks before. Because of that, all three doctors I consulted (my surgeon, my oncologist, and my friend’s physician widower) recommended a mastectomy.
Also, I was more frightened of the effects of radiation than of losing a breast. Because I was used to living with visible scars on my body [after a series of nine surgeries as a child to repair a leg bone disfigurement], that option didn’t seem as frightening to me as I think it does for a lot of women. Finally, it was during that time that your dad’s heart interventions kept failing—he’d have stents put in his arteries or have angioplasties that they kept having to redo—and I knew how traumatic that was for everyone. I wanted just to get it over with. But it did give me a lot to think about, and it was then that I started thinking about me.
What do you mean when you say, “I started thinking about me”?
I went into therapy, and decided there was life after breast cancer and life after the kids are raised. I started taking night classes, since I hadn’t been to school since high school, and wanted to improve my math skills in anticipation of going back. The year [my youngest] started college, I started X-ray school. There’s no way I could have seen the many good changes in store for me.
And after school?
I became a Mamm Tech (mammography technician, the person who administers mammograms). Since my breast cancer was discovered during a mammogram, I loved being the woman standing on the other side of that machine, proving everything could turn out okay, when women came in frightened or concerned.
A few times, over the years, I wound up showing my scar to patients. I remember one girl in particular: She was fairly young, in her late 30s or early 40s, and was back for a repeat mammogram before surgery. She was trying to decide between a lumpectomy with radiation or a mastectomy. I asked how she was doing. She said a mastectomy had been recommended but that she couldn’t decide what to do, as she’d seen pictures of mastectomy scars and they all looked so horrible. “Have you seen one in person?” I asked. She said no, but wished she had, and so I offered to show her my scar. I still remember her clearly, what she looked like when she saw it. “Oh my God!” she said. “Oh my God, that’s not bad at all!” It took the horror away for her. I don’t know what she eventually chose to do, but it was a joy to be able to share it with her.
And there were a lot of other women over the years who’d come in for a follow-up mammogram a year after being diagnosed, still scared, and I’d tell them I had breast cancer too. When I’d tell them how long it had been (to date: eighteen years without recurrence), they’d just feel so good.
How was that time and experience like for your husband and children?
Your dad was extremely supportive and of course concerned. He left the decision about what to do up to me, but let me know that if I had a mastectomy he’d be perfectly fine with that. At fifteen, [my youngest] had the hardest time; she was scared she’d get breast cancer too. I took her in to visit my surgeon—I remember she went in her school softball uniform—and it seemed to help her. The surgeon explained that she didn’t have to worry about it for years, and by the time she was older they’d have so many new technologies and medicines it probably wouldn’t be a concern for her.
These many years later, how does the experience still impact you?
I’m grateful that it was found early, and I’ve had eighteen years with no recurrence. I feel blessed. It has put me in company [through support groups, etc] of wonderful women you’d be proud to know. It has made me more real and compassionate and has given me a lot more empathy for people who are going through a personal tragedy. I do worry for my daughters. Family history is not necessarily a predictor, but it’s not something to be ignored. [The middle daughter] had a benign breast tumor removed in her 30s. I may give a mammogram to your sister [the youngest, now in her 30s, who doesn’t have health insurance] as a Christmas present!
I had just graduated from college, and was starting a Peace Corps tour in Guatemala, when my mother was diagnosed. Having planned to go to law school upon my return stateside, I instead combined a Master’s degree in art therapy with oncology training and designed and implemented arts-based cancer counseling programs in hospitals. Mom and I graduated on the same day—me from grad school, her from X-ray school. When I began that career in the 90s, these were some of the first family-oriented programs designed to support the needs of a whole family system instead of just the diagnosed patient. On a personal level, I lobbied hard to win approval from my health insurance provider to begin early-assessment mammograms annually at age thirty per my mother’s oncologist’s recommendations. I have them done every year at my mother’s office.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.