To wrap up our Breast Cancer Series we interviewed sisters, Amanda and Alyssa. Their story illustrates resilience in every dimension of the word and continues to shape both of their lives today. They lost their mother, a true matriarch, to Breast Cancer in May 2016, and have both dedicated their lives to telling her story not only as individuals but as a united front. Loss is something we all deal with differently and at a young age it’s not so easy to navigate.
Amanda and Alyssa relate to our audience from a completely different perspective. At the time they were two teens whose lives were about to face a major change; one that has no tangible answers and little direction. Today, the sisters are finding their own answers and forging a path for themselves that offers healing, helping others and immense courage. We hope that others can learn from their story because they took this confounding life change head on and carry the essence of their mother everywhere they go with pride and grace.
“There is a lot of work to be done and there are still a lot of people that need to become more aware. Some people have a hard time connecting to it if they don’t know someone directly affected and I think that is something that needs to be changed.” - Amanda
Q: What were your thoughts when you first received the news about your mom? How old were you?
AMANDA: I found out just after my Junior year of high school. I was actually away in Jamaica on a mission trip through my church. I knew something was going on, but they kind of toned it down before I left. I remember that she had an appointment when I was away. I didn’t have my cell phone or anything on me so I didn’t have a way to contact anyone, but one of my chaperones — who use to go to school with my mom — had been in touch with her and I remember finding out halfway through the trip that something was wrong. It was really, really emotional and it kind of took away from my trip that should have been this great life changing experience. Halfway through I was bombarded with the news that my mother is sick and I wasn’t home.
At that point I had already lost one grandparent to cancer, so it’s not like we hadn’t had any loss yet, but nothing to breast cancer at that time. It helped me to be kind of optimistic, but it was really troubling to hear the news and I was only 16. I think about that trip even now and still have trouble connecting positive memories to it.
ALYSSA: I found out about my mom’s cancer in the summer of 2011. I had just finished my freshman year of high school. Thinking back on it now, I do not remember every detail about it unlike the other times she was diagnosed. Every time I did hear that she had breast cancer, or that it came back, I had all different emotions. I was sad, confused, angry and worried about what was going to happen in the future. Every time there was a bump in the road, my mom would always be positive and her strength kept us moving forward. Instead of worrying, I always tried to stay in the present and not think too far into the future and that is now how I strive to live every day.
Q: How would you say what you’ve gone through over the last couple of years has shaped your life?
AMANDA: I always knew I wanted to do research and biology, but when my mother was diagnosed I took it as a “sign." When I started looking at this level of graduate school and saw that cancer research was an option it quickly became a driving force for me to get through this program. I think I have a level of motivation because of what I went through. It has added another dimension tome contributing to this field. Otherwise, without sounding so cliche, we are much stronger. A lot of things that I go through now that seem difficult I think that honestly, things can’t get worse. I feel like I have literally been through the worst that anyone at 21 years old can go through and if anything else seems bad I remind myself that it’s not that bad. That’s pretty helpful for me most days — putting that positive spin on it because it really can’t get any worse.
ALYSSA: I would say that my past experience has shaped and changed my life in a huge way. Experiencing what I have been through at such an important time in my life forced me to be more mature and not take anything for granted. People always say that life is too short and I firmly believe that. During my mom’s battles, we as a family treated every day like our last. I made sure that I enjoy the little things because you do not realize how precious certain things are until it is gone. I have gone through things that I hope no one ever has to experience. My mom’s strength was so powerful and she affected so many people. This sounds cliché, but since the beginning of this journey in 2011, I am stronger, wiser and more appreciative of everything in the world and I have my mother to thank for that.
Q: What was it like being around someone going through such a difficult battle?
AMANDA: I always like to think of my mom as a special case. She was so tough and acted like she was totally fine. Even for us we sometimes had to remind ourselves what she was going through from day to day. She had no symptoms — by that I mean her body didn’t respond negatively to chemo. She was never sick and just lost her hair, she didn’t have any other bad side effects. For example, she never had any pain or anything so for us we were like, “Oh this is no big deal.” I think we realized later that she probably did have symptoms and didn’t want anyone else to know; she wanted to be a positive force for us. My mom always wanted to be the one to motivate others and lift everyone up around her. I think that rubbed off on us. Alyssa, my dad and I are the kind of people who want to be someone for other people to lean on or go to because we don’t want to show what we are feeling. We always want to be really positive like she was because it did really help her get through the hard times. It was helpful for us to see her in that way because it was easier to be so positive about it when she was.
ALYSSA: When people met my mom, no one knew she was sick. Even until her last week’s people never knew the severity of her disease. She never wanted others to look or treat her differently. When people asked about her, we usually teased and responded with, “Oh she’s fine!” In our minds she was not a sick, cancer patient. Her ability to joke and be positive about some horrible things made it much more easier to cope with. I never looked at her experience with cancer as a difficult battle because with her high spirits and huge support system we were able to get through some horrible things.
Q: What would you want other to know about your experience. Do you have any advice for someone that may be going through something similar?
AMANDA: It’s going to feel like the end of the world, but it isn’t. It feels like it's something that you will never be able to recover from, but your days have to go on. Stay strong for whoever you have in your life that’s going through this because I think emotional support is sometimes more important than physical support; medicine can only do so much. It’s their mental state that is going to get the person who is affected through the hard days. At the end of it all, if there is someone who has to go through what we went through, I will say that it does get better. You have to be open to life continuing to get better. My goal through all of this: If I help just ONE family to not have to go through what I (we) had to go through I will feel like I have done everything that I wanted. If I could help more that would be great, but just one family not go through what we did I will feel so accomplished.
ALYSSA: At my school, we have a grief group that meets once a month for people to come together and support others who have experienced loss. We were asked to give advice to people who have recently lost someone and how to deal with life and their situation when it may seem tough. My advice that I tell others is that life moves on very quickly and dwelling in the past will not benefit you in the future. My heart still aches every single day because I am moving forward without my mom, but I know I have too.
Q: The whole community rallied behind your mom and your family through both the good and bad times during the process and still to this day — what has that meant to you and has it made you value friendships more because of it?
AMANDA: Yes, the amount of support we had was overwhelming, sometimes breathtaking at the end. There were some many people that rallied behind us and then you learn who is really there for you. I have seen that the most in her group of friends. They did not just help us at the moment, but are also still there checking in on us to this day. They are an extraordinary group of people and I hope I have a group of friends one day that are half as incredible as them.
I lost one mom and gained 12, I’ve felt that from the very beginning. It’s the little things that mean the world. Every time we get together she’s talked about and it always feels like she is there with us.
ALYSSA: The amount of love and support that we had was indescribable. Looking back on it now brings me to tears because I am so thankful. My mom had some of the best friends. Even after she passed away, they were still there for my family and I for everything and that is what makes them so special. Also, during a time like that, you realize who your true friends are. Even though there were so many people who help and support you, you cannot help but notice the friends that go above and beyond before, during and after. I cherish these special friends and would not be as strong as I am today without them.
Q: Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become very widespread, what does this time of year mean to you?
AMANDA: This time of year gives me more of an opportunity to talk about my experience since it’s been such a big influence in my family. Since 2007, when my grandmother was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, we participate in our local American Cancer Society Walk each October. This has given me the opportunity to connect to others which is important to me because some people have a hard time understanding the importance of raising awareness if they don’t know someone directly affected. That’s why I really wanted to talk with Ivory Ella because it’s a different side of awareness.
ALYSSA: When you hear October, you think of Halloween, but I think of all the different breast cancer events that occur. There is the Making Strides Walk that happens in Providence, RI, and the Gloria Gemma Waterfire. Since 2007, when my nana also had breast cancer, we have been doing these events and today they feel like holidays. It’s so great to see my family and friends come together for a great cause.
Q: What does it mean to you when companies (like us) are raising awareness?
AMANDA: It is so important because there are still people who can’t connect to it if they don’t know someone that’s affected. It’s about targeting people who don’t know someone who has cancer, which I never realized was a problem until about 4-5 years ago. It’s still crazy to think that people still don’t see the importance behind awareness. Now I’m back to square one because I’m talking about cancer every single day. The younger demographic that Ivory Ella is going after is so important because cancer is more prevalent in older adults, but the younger generation is where a lot of the change is going to come from. It’s my generation of researches that have a lot of work ahead of us. Awareness helps people to donate to the cause and those charities really do come back to people like me. It’s been a cool experience for me to live on both sides of it. The money is actually going somewhere. It’s hard to get people to donate, especially people my age because we think we have no money, but it’s not hard to spare $5-10 that can really change someone’s life.
ALYSSA: I love when companies donate to charities, especially ones that help with breast cancer. Any type of cancer is very important and raising money and awareness can help and prevent others. One of my biggest fears is developing cancer, but I know that with the help from companies like Ivory Ella, the future is looking more positive in terms of treatment, prevention and awareness.
Q: What do you think is the most important for thing for the younger generation to know about Breast Cancer?
AMANDA: Catch it early. I saw stats in class the other day that if you catch it in stage 0,1 or 2, your survival rate is over 90%. If you catch it when it’s too late that’s when it gets really difficult. Self examines are so important, be aware of your body. Some work still needs to be done on the insurance level because I think the age that women are getting screened is still a little too late. Now a lot more women are starting to develop it younger. I’m still not sure of the reasons why behind that, but I think getting screened early is important. Finding out if you have a family history of anything and using that to your advantage to get tested as early as possible so you know what measures to take is the best thing you can do for yourself. Being aware of your own body and looking for changes is definitely important.
ALYSSA: I would want everyone to know that cancer is not only for people who are older. I feel that I am hearing more and more about younger women developing breast cancer these days. It is important to be aware and it is never too early to take preventative measures. If women are going to keep running the world we are going to have to take care of ourselves. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but it important to treat every month like that.
Q: The leader of an elephant family is called the Matriarch — she leads with wisdom, strength, extraordinary skills in problem solving, social intelligence, openness, decisiveness, patience, confidence and compassion — which of these characteristics do you identify with and why?
AMANDA: You know what’s funny? You listed a bunch of characteristics that made me immediately think of my mom. I am so far from home now, but my real goal is to move back home and work in the hospitals around there and be the source for my community — even within my family. I am the older daughter and I try to take over a little bit in the ways that I can, more so in the ways that make sense. It’s funny because I always say don’t worry I am going to come back home and work at a local organization that will be relevant to people in my community that I know need it right now.
ALYSSA: I was reading what my sister said and I totally agree with her. My mom is almost all of these qualities. She was the leader of our family and was a source of strength and wisdom for us and everyone around her. Everyone says the same thing about their mother being the best, but my mom Lori was the best. I try to take and learn all of the qualities that she had and apply them to my everyday life. She was a role model to so many.