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Our Bond as a Mother and Daughter Navigating Breast Cancer

Relationships

January 03, 2022

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by Keneene and Kalista Lewis, as told to Elizabeth Millard

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Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ

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by Keneene and Kalista Lewis, as told to Elizabeth Millard

•••••

Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ

•••••

•••••

Keneene Lewis and her teenage daughter Kalista held onto what’s most important while going through treatment together.

When you’re a single mom who’s used to being the sole caregiver, a shift toward letting your child take more responsibility can be challenging. But when that move is due to breast cancer treatment, it’s even tougher. Here’s how Keneene Lewis and her teenage daughter Kalista navigated through diagnosis, care, and changing family roles — while still holding on to what’s most important.

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Keneene’s story

After I found a lump on my own and went in for all the scans and tests, I was scheduled to meet with a breast surgeon. I told Kalista that if I texted her at school, that meant everything was clear. If I showed up at her school, that meant I had cancer.

When I was diagnosed in January 2019, the first thing I did was drive to her school. It took everything I had to hold it together. Kalista was only 16, and this was going to change both of our lives, so I needed to gather myself.

As soon as I saw her, she knew. We left school and got sushi, then ice cream, our favorite kind of day. We were just there for each other, and that’s when the whirlwind started.

Kalista and I are in Atlanta and the rest of our family is in Michigan, so that means it’s just the two of us. We do have a huge family — my mom had 11 siblings — so we kept them updated through social media, and we had support that way. We even had friends from Michigan ordering groceries for us and having them delivered. That made me feel like, OK, maybe we can do this.

At the same time, as my treatment progressed from surgery and into chemo, I could see Kalista getting quieter. She went inward. I was constantly asking if she was OK.

I wanted things to be as normal as possible, so I kept conversations light. No one wants to sit around and talk about cancer all day. But that wasn’t easy because I was on Neulasta, and it was kicking my butt. It was so painful and intense. I knew that seeing me in that kind of pain was hard on Kalista, but she wouldn’t say so.

One thing that helped was that I only asked her to go to chemo with me once — on my 40th birthday. Kalista is an amazing singer. She had a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and she sang for me in the chemo room, which everyone loved. I was so proud of her and so proud of how talented she is. Although it was great to have her there that day, she said she never wanted to come again, and I respected that.

Cancer didn’t beat us — it made us closer because I was able to see, fully, the determination and resilience of my child.

The longer my treatment went on, and the more responsibilities Kalista took on, including helping me shower and cooking dinner most nights, the more I could see that this was hard on her. So, I forced her to go to a camp that’s for children whose parents are affected by cancer, called Camp Kesem. She absolutely didn’t want to go.

I remember at registration, she had her arms crossed, and I could tell she was mad. But in my heart, I knew it was the right choice because she wasn’t talking to me about her feelings, and she needed to be with other kids who could understand. By the time she left camp, she’d decided to become a counselor because it was so helpful to her.

For my own mental health, my doctor told me I needed to plan something in the future because I was getting depressed, so I asked my family to go on a cruise. The timeframe was after my radiation, and I thought: They will either be scattering my ashes or they’ll all be with me celebrating the end of my treatment.

When it turned out to be the latter, all the feelings came out for me — sadness, excitement, humility, anger. I’d felt like the whole world was moving ahead without me. And that’s when I realized that Kalista wasn’t the only one going inward. I’d pushed it all back, too.

Through all of this, we were able to see strength in each other in a way we may not have otherwise. Cancer didn’t beat us — it made us closer because I was able to see, fully, the determination and resilience of my child. If not for her, I’m not sure I would have made it through, because even when she was quiet, I could see that she was fighting for me — and she knew I was fighting for her, too.

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Kalista’s story

When I got to the office at my school the day my mom told me she had cancer, I was in disbelief. I didn’t know what to do. I was hopeful but sad and definitely scared of what might happen. There were so many emotions. Most of all, I just wanted to help.

As she went through treatment, I began to take on more of the responsibilities at home, like laundry, cooking, and helping her in the shower. She was so tired all the time, and while I did as much as I could, I still felt bad because I thought I could be doing more. I tried to stay hopeful, and everyone was telling me that they were praying for her, but underneath it all, I felt overwhelmed.

My mom is strong, she’s a fighter, and she wouldn’t tell me she was in pain — but I could tell that she was. I knew she didn’t want to put stress on me, and so I followed that example and didn’t tell her how I was feeling, either.

For months, I felt all the time like I didn’t know what else to do, and finally, I thought: I’m just going to be here. I’ll just do what I can.

I got to know my mom on a different level, and more than ever, I aspire to be like her. Even in the tough times, I knew we would get through it together.

When she sent me to that camp, I was definitely not happy about it. But once I opened up and began to make friends, it felt like a whole family I didn’t expect to have.

We had fun, but we also talked about caring for a parent with cancer. I found out that most people felt like I did. That helped a lot and let me release all the emotions I had pent up, and it was easier because I wasn’t talking to my mom and putting that on her.

I broke down and let everything out and had people there to support me. That changed how I was able to talk about my feelings when I came back.

I do feel like I learned a lot about my mom through this, and I learned about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to communicating with each other. Even though I didn’t want to have this experience — no one wants their mom to have cancer — it feels more like it was a special opportunity now.

I got to know my mom on a different level, and more than ever, I aspire to be like her. Even in the tough times, I knew we would get through it together.

This is When You See Us, a series in partnership with our friends at For the Breast of Us, highlighting the experiences of Women of Color in the breast cancer community. Together, we believe that hearing the stories of women who look like you and can relate to your experiences has the power to foster community, resiliency, and hope.

Fact checked on January 03, 2022


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