Don’t Borrow Trouble

What to do when your mom has cancer

My mom has had a CAT scan and a PET scan and several biopsies from a lump on her shoulder in the last few weeks.

My mom really likes cats as pets.

Last week, we were in DSW, talking about her biopsies. Each of my questions had a different pair of shoes attached to it.

“What are they looking for?” I asked as I sauntered in zebra-striped high heels with a red spike.

“Those are hideous,” my mother said, sitting on one of those stools with the side mirrors. “Well, they’re looking for a lot of things.”

“Yeah, they make my feet look huge!” I took them off and tried on black boots with metal studs.

“Are they looking. . . . Are they looking for cancer?”

Things We’ve Learned

Primary activity is in the abdominal area

Cancer cells eat more sugar than regular cells

Lump on shoulder signals metastasis, not lymphoma

Weird case, no other symptoms

My mother would be horrified if I shaved my head

“I told the doctor, I have my daughter’s wedding in July. I already bought my dress. It’s hanging in my closet. And no scars if I have surgery.”

Things I’ve Said

Well, that’s concerning


What does it mean

Have you told the family


Non-specific cancer cells

I don’t want my mother to die

Walking out in the rain. It’s gotten cold since the morning. It’s 8 p.m.

Walking down into the L, carrying my bike helmet.

Checking in with myself while talking to my mom on the phone—unsure of what to say, questioning. Maybe I’m in shock right now.

What else … I mean, I guess you’ve done everything you can right now, but what else can you do?

I’m talking about health: stop drinking, eat extremely healthy, start exercising, doing yoga, juicing. . . . I’m planning a regimen for my mom. I’ll miss work. When is the soonest I can go out to the suburbs? Tomorrow? Have meetings tomorrow, and besides, we haven’t found out anything, so is there a point until we find out something concrete?

Would the PET scan detect any—cancer—in your lymph nodes?

I can barely say cancer; I skirt around the word.

Waiting for the Red Line. Is it ok to talk about something else? She must want to talk about something else. The wedding.

Dan and I made an appointment to try cakes in April. On a Sunday morning, so you could come and try them.

If you want me to?

Of course I want you to!

Mom is a nurse.

Mom doesn’t make a big deal of things.

There’s nothing to make a big deal of right now.

Talking, talking, train is coming both ways, so loud. Mom, I have to call you back later. Mom starts to say that we’ll talk tomorrow but is drowned out by the train. I yell over the trains, I love you! Mom, I love you! But I don’t think she hears me.

I get on the train. I have only one stop until Jackson, where I’ll switch to the Blue Line. I’m on my own now. I feel heavy.

The train stops at Jackson. I get off, making my way through a medium crowd of people. I’m walking down the stairs behind a man with two guitar cases—something about his gait, bouncing like my thoughts. What am I going to do about my wedding?

Get to the Blue Line platform, waiting for the train. Things are distant, slightly surreal. There’s a musician playing music that turns into “Hava Nagila,” which is odd because my fiancé, Dan, is Jewish, and we’ll definitely be dancing to the song at our wedding.

Rat scurrying underneath the tracks, more Jewish music. Pull out my phone and text Dan: I’m heading home now. Wonder what I’m going to tell him, how I’m going to tell him. How long I’ll wait to say my mom has cancer.

Train comes, get on the train. Starting to feel more exhausted. Sit in seat. Clutch my bike helmet. I look across the aisle at an advertisement posted on the train car wall for a PhD program—American University of the Caribbean. Specialist doctors. Will one of them be treating my mom? Will she have a doctor from the Caribbean? Thoughts have gone from What will I do about the wedding? to My mom has cancer.

Repeating like a calming mantra. My mom has cancer.

Echoing the tap of the train over the tracks.

My mom has cancer. My mom has cancer. My mom has cancer.

I get off the train at my stop. My parents had told my brother. They said he was freaking out silently, that he might call me to talk about it. He hasn’t. No use worrying about something we don’t know yet. It may be ovarian or uterine. We don’t know yet. We’re not good at talking until something gets serious.

Up on the street, I feel the wind across my face. My hood has been on this whole time. Walk to the corner to cross, waiting for the light. I go before it turns when I see there are no cars coming. What do I care, anyway? A bus honks, at me I think, maybe warning me of an oncoming car I didn’t see because my hood is in the way of my sight, but no, the driver is honking at a friend. I step onto the sidewalk and am confronted by three kids and a dad. Dad is saying, Now, be careful.

At some point, I realize I want to hit someone with my bike helmet.

Wedding To Dos

Order groomsmen suits

Create invitations

Contact florist for estimate

Look for rings

Buy bridal shower thank you cards

Cancer To Dos

Appointment with oncologist

Go to chemo class with Mom

Buy vaporizer and weed

Look at wigs in Re-Imaging Center

Don’t borrow trouble

I start to have conversations in my head:

Hi, how are you?
Good. . . . My mom has cancer.

What would you like for dinner?
I don’t know, but my mom has cancer.

Would you like fries with that?
Fries give you cancer.

I get to my bike, take off the plastic bag that’s protected my seat from the rain. Which way am I going to go home? The wind is strong, so I head south on the neighborhood streets. It’s freezing, but it doesn’t matter: I don’t have cancer, my mother does. Stop being such a wimp.

In the hour before I found out my mom has cancer, I was at work, listening to a teacher give a presentation on probability, how to teach it to anyone, but mainly to elementary school kids. He used a game show as an example: Let’s Make a Deal. Pick three doors; figure out the ratio—what’s the probability that you’ll win if you switch doors or stay with your first pick? He told us that people make decisions by probability all the time: they’ll go to a restaurant three times and it’ll be really good, so they won’t go a fourth time because it can’t possibly be good that many times in a row. I said it was probability plus cynicism. Thinking the bad thing will happen if there are three good things in front of it. Or the opposite: something bad just happened, so the karma’s kind of neutral and you have a free pass for a while. So when the next bad thing happens, you know your karma’s run out.

I ride down the shitty, pothole-ridden roads, zoom through a couple of stop signs without really looking. My hood is still up, now with my helmet on top; my bike lights are dimly blinking against the dark. . . . What’s the probability that I’ll get hit? What’s the probability that after I find out my mom has cancer, a car will slam into me? That the driver won’t see me as I turn back onto a main road, because of the slight drizzle, my black coat, or just their negligence? Can two bad things happen in a row like that? One to the mother, one to the daughter? What did the teacher say about independent and dependent probability? In an independent circumstance, the two events are separate. They do not influence each other and, therefore, have separate probabilities. While I am an independent circumstance, I am dependent on my mother; how does this affect the probability concerning my mortality?

I reach home; my fingers are frozen. Fumble with my keys to open the gate and lift my bike down the stairs. Dan is home. How am I going to tell him? I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom. Say hi, he’s made dinner, drop my stuff. Pee. Want to eat. Dan wants to finish watching the last five minutes of The Walking Dead. So I eat in silence, thinking, coming out of the cold in my head. We had a fight last night—not a fight, but one of those intense conversations where someone cries because the other one has said something to make them doubt the relationship. So we’re both tired.

He asks if I’ve been thinking about us today, and I say no. I feel bad about saying it, but I don’t want to lie.

I was in meetings all day. Have you?

No, he says. A little, but I had six walk-ins.

I think he might be lying. He says something to make me laugh, and I do, in a small way. Then I say, Um, my mom has cancer. He says, Oh my god, that’s awful news. I’m so sorry, honey, and comes to hug me. Then he asks what kind, and I say maybe ovarian or uterine.

Dan calls my dad, and my dad gives Dan his version of the cancer story. My dad—I only thought of him while waiting at Jackson, while I was thinking about what would happen if my mom died and he was left alone. What if we were left alone.

Dan gets off the phone and starts typing on our laptop. Looking things up on the Internet. Don’t do that, I say. We don’t know anything yet. There’s no use. I don’t want to see the information, but I do. Facts about ovarian cancer open next to a Pinterest tab with wedding ideas. Worlds clash on the screen, the titans of happiness and despair.

I go to bed. The next day, I order groomsmen suits and give the baker our cake tasting preferences. I don’t cry for a week. I don’t tell anyone else. I just wait.

About the Author

Alyssa Grace Sorresso

Alyssa Grace Sorresso is a creative nonfiction writer living in Chicago, who loves telling stories out loud. She holds a master’s in applied theater from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

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