Jessica Benson, 24, a sports anchor & reporter at the ABC affiliate in Memphis, TN, shares her experience of growing up effected by cancer.
Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Jessica. When I had first posted about my mom's illness on Facebook, you messaged me saying, "Your mom seems like a total badass (much how I view my own mom.)" I love that so much. Tell us about your mom. She sounds incredible. I flippin' love my mom more than anything in this world. I think my boyfriend finally understands that my mom has always and will always come first in my life. She was a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, so thanks to her, I've had the travel bug in my DNA since birth. She's also passed on a love for Broadway musicals, college football, David Yurman jewelry and prosseco. My mom is a 20-year breast cancer survivor. This past year, she had complications with her original implants, so she's had a series of surgeries to try and get everything situated. She'll have her (fingers crossed!) final reconstruction surgery in November.
Do you recall the moment when you found out that your parent was ill? What was that experience like for you? I was so young (four-years-old), so when I say I remember the exact moment I realized my mom was sick...you can tell it had a pretty big impact on me. Rather than watching her hair fall out, my mom went and had her head shaved. Our hair dresser back then was named Kelly. I can still remember what she looked like. While my mom and dad went to the salon, I went over to my best friend's house down the street. When my parents came to pick me up, my mom walked in the house, showed me her bald head ablazin' and said, "what do you think?" I screamed "I hate it" and cried.
From there the whole thing is really a blur. I do know I had one hell of a support system. Family and friends took care of me, distracted me, kept me from really experiencing anything out of the ordinary. I remember on occasion trying to hang out with my mom and being told I couldn't. I also remember on occasion trying to hang out with my mom, and someone trying to stop me, but my mom - in a whisper shout - would tell me to come get in bed with her.
And then one day she was ok again. I had my mom back. She was back to making me chicken nuggets and those little Red Baron personal pizzas and maybe some broccoli that I always tried to spit out. She was taking me to Disneyland and waiting six hours to get Belle's autograph. She was back to being my best friend.
How did you first get involved with breast cancer advocacy / how do you identify as a Breast Cancer Advocate? My mom had an awesome breast cancer group, and I thought they were some of the coolest ladies in world. I'm an only child, so I was always looking for friends and I thought all these women were my friends, so I had no problem coming to their meetings or sitting in the back of a room coloring while they planned the Race for the Cure.
From the beginning, I walked in the Race for the Cure every year. As I got older, that transitioned into also volunteering for set-up and Race Day. One of my favorite yearly traditions was the end of the race, when they celebrated the survivors by releasing doves, pink balloons and playing "We Are The Champions." To this day, I can't help but smile when I hear that song and think of my mom and all her pals standing together, singing along. It wasn't all pink and rainbows, though. I also saw a handful of strong, beautiful women lose their fights. Just typing that gives me such a pit in my stomach because it's so dang unfair.
What has been the most challenging aspect of seeing your mother combat her illness? My mom is superwoman. This past year - even though she isn't technically sick - has been what I imagine I would've felt like if I'd been older when she went through treatment for breast cancer. Her original implants failed. She went to Houston, TX (MD Anderson) to have the original surgery we'd hope would put an end to the problems. It had its risks, but we were confident. Her recovery was going well. She'd stayed with our superstar former neighbor in Houston who'd nursed her back to health. When she got back home, my boyfriend and I were able to visit for the weekend and feed her prosecco and dungeness crab (her favorite). We laughed, we hugged, we celebrated.
She ended up getting an infection. A bad one. One that needed surgery no more than 24 hours after she first got the news. I was working about 4 and a half hours away from her at the time. My line of work isn't the most conducive with taking days off (the news never sleeps!) so she insisted she was fine and that I didn't need to come for the surgery. I originally agreed. But, on my way out of work that day I stopped by my boss's office to explain the situation. My boss, without skipping a beat, told me to go. I said I'd think about it.
I texted my boss at 2:30am saying I was going to drive to Seattle. When I got there, I spent the hours before my mom's surgery with her, and I was so glad I'd made the decision to skip work and make the drive. When they wheeled her into surgery I said "I love you, you're my best friend." I'd like to bottle those words up and make sure my mom hears them at her next surgery when I can't be in attendance.
I went for a run around the University of Washington campus while she was in surgery. The doctor had told me it shouldn't be more than an hour and a half. I cried off and on as I ran around Husky Stadium, around the University Village and around random streets that led me nowhere but gave me a path to follow as my mind wandered to the "what if's" and the "worst cases."
I came back to the hospital at exactly the 90-minute mark. I had been told to wait in my mom's room. My aunt and uncle were there. My mom's boy who's a friend (ugh she's so middle school) was there. We all sat. We all waited. What was supposed to take 90-minutes turned into nearly three hours. I guess they had the wrong number for me on file but turns out the surgery itself only took 90-minutes, but my mom wanted all the drugs so she had to stay downstairs for an additional couple hours. Those hours of not knowing were so hard and I get emotional thinking about them because you're just so damn scared. There's no other way to put it. She's my mom. We talk on the phone every single day, probably three times a day, and even when we don't have anything to talk about she'll stretch out the conversation to make sure I get home from work safely at night.
When I saw her it was the biggest feeling of relief. I spent the next two nights with her in the hospital until she was released. Her sorority sister, who I consider one of my pseudo aunts, came and stayed with us. The two of us slept on a cot. True love is sleeping on a cot, let me tell ya. My mom has continued to recover. As I said earlier, she has one (I hate to say that word because I don't want to jinx it) surgery left. I've since moved from Washington to Tennessee and this time around I don't have a 4.5 hour drive I can make to be with her, so I'll have to count on her friends and family to give enough love in my absence.
What has been a rewarding aspect of experiencing this journey with your mom? I like to think I'd always be this close to my mom, but I'm sure the fear of the disease shortening our relationship made both of us approach our relationship with an extra dose of love.
Was is one piece of advice she has given you that will always stay with you? It's not really a piece of advice but just an overall attitude at approaching life. To treat everyone kindly. To always believe in myself. To always give the bad news first, so the good news is the freshest thing on the mind. To never go to bed mad. To find a way to laugh in the middle of a good cry. To use my brain because she didn't waste all those flashcards for nothing.
If there is one piece of advice you could give young women with an ill parent, what would that be? Just love your parents every single day. Don't spend time being mad or being to cool for school or thinking you don't need them. When I say I call my mom everyday, I'm not joking. I call my dad everyday, too. Just be appreciative of all the time you have. Also, don't be afraid to not be ok. It's scary. It's frustrating. It's overwhelming. You are not expected to be 100% on your A-game all the time. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise.
To connect with Jessica, you can follow her on Twitter @Local24Jessica or on Instagram @JessBenson3.