Mother, daughter both have breast cancer

Marilyn Howard, left, and her daughter Brenda Holden pose for a portrait as the pair battle breast cancer together. The women were diagnosed less than three weeks apart and found out about each other’s cancer the same day. 

GILLETTE — The call from the doctor didn’t shock Brenda Holden.

The 49-year-old mother of three and her husband listened on speakerphone as the doctor reported the results of a biopsy she had done after finding a lump in her breast.

It was cancer, and it was malignant.

“My heart didn’t hit the floor,” Holden said. “I didn’t cry. I just knew, in my gut.”

The call made it real, confirmed her fears and allowed her head to catch up with her gut.

Holden ended the call, but she wasn’t done with her phone just yet. She had another call to make.

Marilyn Howard, Holden’s mother, was on the other end and, in a way, also had a gut feeling about the news she’d hear.

Still, shock wasn’t entirely absent from the conversation.

“Well, I’ve got something to tell you, too,” Howard, 71, told her daughter.

Howard also had been diagnosed with breast cancer, a secret she had kept for 17 long days.

That news was unexpected. Holden’s reaction was even more unexpected.

She laughed.

“You’re kidding me!” Holden said.

It wasn’t until later that she realized that maybe laughter wasn’t the right response. But who’s to say what one should or shouldn’t do in a moment like that, when daughter and mother trade the same devastating news: I have cancer.

It was a reaction that compensated and overcorrected for the sudden influx of negative emotions. Life-changing news, twice over, in a matter of minutes is a lot to process. Then add in the seeming absurdity of it all.

What are the chances? It’s a question mother and daughter wish they didn’t have to ask.

There’s a certain comfort in calling a parent in times of need, no matter a person’s age. It’s a reversion to youth, a suspension of autonomy, an unfailing trust in the order of the universe that gave this person as protector. It’s learned from a young age, when the tears and world-ending pain of a scraped knee from a bike fall can be healed by mom’s kiss.

In the same way, it’s a parent’s instinct to protect. That’s what Howard was doing for more than two weeks after learning of her diagnosis but not telling her daughter. It was an act of love, in her mind, not to burden her daughter until she knew exactly what her treatment would look like.

It had been weeks since Howard first discovered a lump in her breast, and she was frustrated with how slowly things were moving.

“I’m like, ‘Hurry up, everybody!’” Howard said.

She pounds on the table with a closed fist as she says it. “But then I didn’t worry about it for five years, and then, now it’s like ...” She pounds the kitchen table even faster now, letting the thumps finish the idea her words started.

Howard was processing complicated feelings of complicity about her own situation. It had been five years since she’d last had a mammogram, even though her doctor suggested she get one.

“I feel like it could have been caught a lot sooner if I’d just done my part,” Howard said.

Howard carried that heaviness silently and alone. During that silent period, she accompanied her daughter to an appointment for a biopsy of her own after Holden discovered a lump in January.

Suddenly, Howard’s cancer took on a new weight. It now was proof of a family history for her daughter, a history her daughter had no way of knowing about.

“On your chart, you’re supposed to put whether there’s a history of breast cancer,” Howard said about the medical paperwork required in dealing with breast cancer. “Well, I hadn’t told her, so it wasn’t on her chart.”

Concerned by the omission but still not ready to burden her daughter with her news, Howard did the next best thing in her mind. Holden left the room at one point, and Howard knew she needed to tell the technician tending to Holden.

“‘I was in here two weeks ago,” Holden told the technician when she caught her in the hall.

“I thought you looked familiar,” the technician said.

“I do have cancer, but Brenda doesn’t know. None of my kids know,” Howard told her.

Holden returned, and said she could sense that something had changed in her absence.

“She was like a naughty little kid,” Holden said of her mother. She thought Howard had asked something or learned some bad news.

“I didn’t ask him anything,” Howard told her. It was technically the truth, just not the whole truth.

Only a few days before her scheduled mastectomy, Howard’s thoughts were still with her daughter. They’ve always been incredibly close with a special relationship that sees the two function more like close friends than mother and daughter.

“For me, my case didn’t worry me as bad because I was worried about her,” Howard said. “I’m the momma. You’re always worried about your kids.”

Howard seems to appreciate her sickness in a strange way, the kind that only makes sense to a parent. Nobody wants cancer, and Howard is no exception. But that she does helps, perhaps in only marginal amounts, to soften the anxieties over the fight her daughter has ahead of her.

“God — not made this happen — but we’re doing this together, otherwise if it were just me, she would be a wreck,” Holden said as she looked across the table at her mother.

“I probably would,” Howard agreed. “I have it, so now I have to kind of take care of myself a little bit.”

Holden never seemed angry that her mother had at first kept her diagnosis secret. She saw it as a natural reaction from a mother who strives to shelter her kids. As a mother of three children ages 12, 14 and 17, Holden knows the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children.

“I’ve thought that if I have to go through this and pray that, if I have to be the one so that my kids don’t have to go through this, I’ve been comforted by that. But she can’t say that,” Holden said. “She can’t take that cross from me.”

The women are bound together now by something more than blood. They are fellow travelers on a journey that not everyone has strength to make. Despite their seemingly odds-defying similarities, their cancers aren’t exactly the same. Neither will be their treatments.

“We kind of figured we’d be sitting in chemo together, but at this point we’re not going to be in chemo together,” Howard said.

Howard’s cancer formed a mass, 3 inches by 2 inches in size, and its size made a lumpectomy no longer an option. Her treatment would begin with a mastectomy, which was performed by a specialist in Rapid City, South Dakota. If she’s to do chemotherapy or radiation treatments, it will come later after tests have revealed whether the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes.

Holden’s cancer is already in her lymph nodes. Her treatment will soon begin with chemotherapy. First will be a two-drug cocktail every other week over the course of eight weeks, followed by a single drug every other week over the course of another eight weeks.

Holden’s emotions have been up and down since the diagnosis. She’s often able to laugh and flash a brilliantly white smile, even while discussing the cancer inside her and her mother’s. But at one point, her voice cracked and her eyes began to water.

“But I have kids, and I’m busy, and I’m building a business. I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for this. And I still don’t have time for this,” she said, stressing the point. “But guess what? It’s making time. I’ve just lived a very healthy life. Like, I’ve never even had a cavity.”

“She doesn’t drink pop,” Howard added.

“I don’t drink pop,” Holden echoed. “I don’t drink coffee.”

“She eats her fruits and vegetables,” Howard said.

“I exercise,” Holden said to finish off the list. “You’re like, ‘Listen, I do all these things, so it should not affect me.’”

“You should not have gotten it,” her mother said.

“But it doesn’t matter,” Holden said of their shared unseen enemy. “It doesn’t care.”

Howard looked at her daughter with eyes full of love and understanding. There are many expressions that only a mother can make, but Howard’s was informed by her own experience, her own questions, her own quiet fears that never are spoken aloud.

“I’ve never asked why,” Holden said, making a noise that was not a wail, cry or grunt, but some hybrid of the three. Mostly, it was an acknowledgement that tears are coming, that they’ve risen to the level of spilling over.

“God has a plan,” Holden said. “And I’m part of that. I was like, ‘God, I don’t want to do this.’”

Each word is punctuated with a fist hitting her upturned palm, a sharp staccato under her shaky voice.

“But I feel like he was like, ‘I’ll catch you. It’s going to be OK, and you’ll get through it,’” Holden said. “So it’s for a reason. Much, much bigger than myself, but I don’t like that I’m the vessel in this.”

On Thursday, Howard required a minor follow-up procedure and that evening, Holden and her youngest child, Daughtry, placed a video call to her. COVID-19 restrictions in the hospital limited Howard’s visitors to just one person, and Holden couldn’t be there.

Mother and son sat huddled on their couch, sharing a tiny phone screen. Late-afternoon light streamed through the window. The house was silent except for the ringing from the speakerphone. Suddenly, there was life on the other end of the line.

“There she is!” Holden said.

“Hi, Grandma,” said Daughtry, 12.

“Oh, you look great,” Holden told her mother.

The conversation seemed like a normal call between a mother and a daughter, each sharing bits of small talk and highlights of their days. Normality is a precious and fleeting thing for them. There will be more phone calls, more visits to doctors’ offices, more tests, more prayers, more trips to see the same hometown oncologist they share, more difficult moments and, hopefully, more happy ones, too.

“Love you,” Holden said as the conversation ended. “We’ll talk to you soon.”

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