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My hidden byline: my mother had breast cancer By Caroline O’Connor

Snow began to fall on a numbingly cold Sunday, but my internal furnace set me ablaze with anger and kept me moving through the bone-chilling weather. I marched into the office where I intern as a photojournalist; slowly, I started to retouch photos from my most recent assignment at a local library. During the event, there was a mom speaking with other parents about how she had recently finished her chemotherapy treatments. I was initially startled and wanted to say something. But I didn’t. I often find it difficult to separate my own ethical code from that of a journalist. However, in certain situations that require sensitivity, it is difficult to withhold my compassion. My mother had breast cancer for more than a year and recently made the decision to not continue with another round of radiation treatment.

Not long ago, the women’s basketball team hosted a breast cancer awareness game at the Mullins Center. The girls on the team and the coaching staff were clad in pink uniforms. Although it’s an annual event for the team, this year was particularly special since the head coach’s wife, Heather Verdi, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I was touched by the showing of awareness and support for Heather Verdi and other breast cancer fighters and survivors, and I was reminded of my very recent experience with my mother surviving breast cancer.

It was life-altering for everyone in my family, and even though the treatments are now over, it is still hard.

My mother is not the same as she was prior to having breast cancer; chemotherapy treatments have slowed her down and dramatically affected her ability to retain information. My mother describes her current state as someone with “chemo brain.” Even though the treatments are over she is still struggling. Once, a trip to a clothing store brought on stress when my now-frail mother couldn’t remember how to pay with her debit card. Another time, she yelled at me in the car because she forgot where to find the post office and thought I was driving in the wrong direction. These little things add up, but it was much harder when she was still going through the chemotherapy treatments.

My mother was extremely distraught when her hair began to fall out. One day, she told my dad to shave it all off, but once it was gone she felt less and less like herself. To her, she was less of a woman because of her lack of hair. Quickly, she became excruciatingly weak; her immune system was compromised, and she didn’t have the energy to stand. She lost weight, fast. I frequently went home over the weekends during the school year to take care of her and support her because she needed loving company.

She mostly slept through days curled up against me, and I remained still, never wanting to wake her. Even though I never showed it, taking care of her was very hard. Almost everyone fears aging, death or both and it is almost worse when you realize your parents are growing old.

It is one thing to accept what happens to yourself, but it is an entirely different beast when you realize the people who cared for you, taught you almost everything you know and raised you with the utmost love are now declining. It is a wake-up-call that life has a beginning and an end. When my mother first told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer it was a moment of pure horror to understand that her moment of death might be expedited because of a microscopic disease. I froze, emotionless, I couldn’t shed a tear because I was beyond the point of general despair. I had flashbacks of the best and worst moments I’ve had with my mother. We often went to see “chick flicks” together at our local movie theatre, and those times were some of our fondest memories together. Watching those dumb movies, your knees buckle as you fall head-over-heels in love with Prince Charming. In reality, that knee-buckling only happens when a disease risks the life of someone you love.

So whenever I am photographing an event, I usually become angry over my own internal conflict of whether or not to voice my empathy to the people involved. Journalism ethics do not allow for much humanity and put neutrality on a pedestal.

I am serious about my work, but I cannot ethically throw aside my feelings and compassion after torturously watching my mother struggle through breast cancer.

At the end of the women’s basketball game I threw aside my journalistic ways and offered my sympathies to the head coach. I awkwardly fumbled on my words, but I am glad I did because compassion and humanity matter more than a job and no one can truly be without their own biases. Our experiences shape us, and we should acknowledge that they affect us and our compassion for those facing similar strife. If those emotions aren’t acknowledged, then I’d be lying to myself, and what kind of a journalist am I if not a seeker of truth?

Caroline O’Connor is the Collegian photo editor and can be reached carolineocon@umass.edu.

Created By
Abigail Charpentier
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