Becoming a mom after losing my mom to breast cancer has helped me grow into the mother I wish to be to my children.

illustration of the author and family photosShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

“It’s called metastatic breast cancer. That means her cancer cells have spread to her liver and soon to her brain. I’m so sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”

I was 19 and had just rushed out of my level 2 French class to the university hospital to visit with my mom. She was 52 — a loud, Hispanic, powerful woman. I grew up thinking she was invincible. But cancer doesn’t care what kind of person you are or how much life left you have to live. It was that moment when my hate for the month of October began.

My mom passed away on September 6, 2015. And three weeks later my social media feeds lit up with pink ribbons, survivor porn, and friends posting pictures with their “strong,” “fighter” moms that overcame their diagnosis. It made me feel inferior.

Why did their mom survive while my mom was given 3 weeks? I know the answer now. But at that time, when I was a sophomore in college and missed my mom more than I can write, I didn’t care.

Five years later, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that my mom’s death could have been prevented. I’ve learned 1,001 coping strategies for my irrational anger and my anxieties about hospitals. And mainly, I’ve learned to love October.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn’t solely for the survivor stories or the “strong mom” posts. (Don’t get me wrong, I would 100 percent be sharing those posts too, if I had the chance.) October is so much more than that. It’s a month to help all women to have a fighting chance at life. The life that my mom will never get to finish.

As I write this, I am finishing up my first trimester of my first pregnancy. Becoming a mom without your mom brings a whole new perspective to growing a baby. And as I welcomed in another October, I soon realized what I have to do for my baby — what they will deserve of me.

Shortly after my mom’s death, I had my yearly appointment with my physician. I wanted to tell her about my mom. How I’m concerned for my own future. How I’ve been counting the years I probably have left to live at night instead of counting sheep.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was embarrassed that I’d have a Mary-sized meltdown in front of her. It took me 2 years, about three visits, to finally bring up my mom and my concerns. I did cry, but a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.

Due to my mom and her mom having breast cancer, my doctor ordered a genetic testing kit for me to test for BRCA1, BRCA2, and any other genetic mutations that I could have.

Although my test came back negative for any sign of these issues, I knew I still needed to keep the conversation going with my doctor to manage my breast cancer-induced anxiety.

My mom could be alive today. It’s a hard fact to swallow. And while I can’t change the fact I lost my mom before I was ready, I can prevent it from happening to my children.

I’m 24 right now and 40 years old — the standard suggested age for starting mammograms — seems light years away! Since I’m higher risk, I’m going to work with my doctor on when to begin screening. The American Cancer Society suggests those at high risk begin screenings at 30.

Until then, I have made it a habit to give myself a breast self-exam in the shower at least once a week. It may sound like overkill, but the pain I went through was convincing enough to know I never want my baby to feel this way either.

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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

I was raised by a strong woman, but we didn’t chat frequently about our health histories and what we were doing to stay healthy. Now as an adult, I can clearly see how much I missed out on those conversations as a child.

Fortunately, I’ve made the conscious decision to break that unhealthy habit and over communicate the importance of healthy routines for our growing family. My children will see their mom prioritizing her yoga practice, taking their dogs on long walks, and seeing my doctor and getting my mammograms as often as needed.

They’ll know that breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women. They’ll know there isn’t a cure, but early detection is the best way to survive. They’ll know how fragile life is and how important taking care of ourselves, and each other, is to keep a family whole.

As surprised as my 19-year-old self would be to hear this, I’m excited to grow a family and speak openly about what happened to “nana” (a name she so wished to be called!). I’m committed to being on this earth as long as possible.

And to any mom out there reading this, make your commitment with me. If not for yourself, then for your children.

Get your mammogram, talk openly about your family’s health history, and display daily healthy habits with your children. Because growing old and watching them deal with kids of their own sounds like too much fun to miss out on!

Mary Catherine Bookwalter is a social media manager at Healthline Parenthood and an avid reader of anything with a strong female lead. She loves walking her two dogs after work, watching her stepson on the baseball field, and discovering her new favorite coffee shops around the city. Mary Catherine lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is expecting her first baby next year. You can follow her on Instagram.