Thicker Than Water
These sisters – and breast cancer survivors – share a serious bond, with a ton of laughter.
Mary was first. Then Susan, followed by Lita. Trish, the youngest, went straight for a preventative double mastectomy, the BRACA2 gene mutation making it all but certain that she would develop breast cancer like her three sisters before her.
Yet, sitting in Mary’s living room, 13 years after her diagnosis, with the scent of baking cupcakes wafting from the kitchen and her three sisters gathered around, one would hardly guess that the reason we had all gathered was to talk about their respective battles with breast cancer. There were no tears or hugs or chokes on memories better left forgotten, though there had been plenty of those throughout the nearly decade and a half that their family has been battered – but not defeated – by the disease.
There was only laughter, the sound of it erupting spontaneously and freely from a shared history of experiences. Because this journey hasn’t all been about loss – of friends and family, and of breasts and hair – there have been gains, too, of perspective and knowledge, wisdom and experience to pass onto others and to center themselves when the stresses of everyday life start to add up and feel impermissibly overwhelming. “I remember the day I was diagnosed,” says Mary. “I was sitting there and the kids were sleeping and all these things go through your head – I’m not going to see them go to school, their wedding – so when you get through it, you realize life is good.”
And life is good for these four Delgado sisters. They’re all survivors, and although their mother, Mavis, died in 2010 of ovarian cancer – a woman they collectively regard with something approaching sainthood, who “went above and beyond the call of mom duty” in helping her daughters get through countless chemo treatments and surgeries – they still have each other. And their delightfully light way of living, full of life and a refreshingly real perspective that can only have come from a very authentic struggle to hold onto all they have been given.
Here, they share what they’ve gained.
“We have had our fair share of ups and downs, but through it all, we four sisters have grown stronger together,” says Susan. “We are our own support group and we are always there for each other. We have been a shoulder to cry on, an advocate and a researcher. However, we are very considerate, and we waited for one to finish their treatment before the next one was diagnosed.”
Pause for applause. And laughter.
These were Susan’s words at Susan G. Komen Orange County’s 2007 Race for the Cure Survivor Tribute. They’re telling – a summary of mutual respect for one another and of the humor that has carried the four sisters through years of chemo treatments and surgeries. And it hasn’t changed or diminished in the years since. As we sit in our conversation circle, sentences left incomplete by one sister are completed by another, and jokes roll off the tongue far easier – and louder – than any story of all the horrifically difficult moments. It’s contagious; there’s nothing to do but laugh along, feeling, at first, daringly inappropriate for chuckling about something as serious as another’s misfortune. My eyes dart from person to person: Is this OK?
Can I giggle?
So here we are – here I am – catching our collective breath as Patricia cracks a witty remark about her sister Mary’s story of her breast cancer diagnosis. “I still didn’t know if it was a Stage 2B or a Stage 3,” says Mary, describing her tumor. “The size was so large that it should have been a Stage 3 but it didn’t go into my lymph nodes so they thought it was a 2B…”
“To be or not to be,” banters Patricia, holding her finger in the air, the picture of a Shakespearian actor.
Maybe it’s because we all know how the story ends. Mary had chemo, radiation and a double mastectomy; Susan, the same; Lita, whose cancer was detected very early on, did not have chemo or radiation but chose to have a double mastectomy; and Patricia, the youngest, chose not to wait for her turn, undergoing a preventative double mastectomy.
“We’re a lucky family – very lucky,” says Patricia. “We’ve always been very close.”
“[Collectively having breast cancer] wasn’t life-altering, where we hadn’t spoken to each other for years and this suddenly brought us back together,” says Mary.
Still, despite their unbreakable family bond and their sense of humor, there are rules – one in particular – to be followed.
“Just don’t laugh and point at the same time,” says Patricia.
Breasts: Those symbols of femininity and the womanly form; the eternal debates about who wants theirs smaller or larger, perkier or more symmetrical. But ask someone who has had breast cancer what they think about them, and chances are you’ll get an earful about the problems they’ve caused, maybe a wistful ode to their once-healthy body tissue that has since wreaked havoc on their lives. Or maybe, if you’re the Delgado sisters, a hilarious farewell to their former breasts.
“The first year, you can’t get it out of your head because it feels weird,” says Lita. “Mine are the gel kind – it feels more like a gummy bear.”
“It does?” says Patricia. “Mine are more liquidy – they slosh around.”
“The worst is when you have the prosthetics and they move,” says Susan. “So you’re getting out of the car and you’ve got one down by your stomach and one up by your shoulder and it’s just…”
“Great!” says Patricia.
There are these irreverent references to breasts long since removed, replaced by implants that can feel like “the things you put in the refrigerator that get cold,” according to Lita, and then there are the very real observations that letting go of them has accomplished.
“My husband was like, ‘Well, we can keep those but then we don’t have you,'” says Mary.
“Exactly,” says Patricia. “You’ll replace them. Who cares? Move on.”
And move on they have, with their breasts – and breast cancer – behind them.
On Knowledge Gained
A tip from the Delgado sisters:
“You cannot go to the doctor by yourself,” says Susan. “You have to take one or two people.”
“Depending on who the other person is – your spouse or your mom – you may need to take a second person,” agrees Patricia. “Because you hear one word of it and your whole mind goes blank and you don’t hear all the details.”
Get used to the indignities of cancer and chemo.
Lean on others. They want to help.
Take advantage of resources from organizations like Susan G. Komen Orange County. (Example: If you have younger children, Komen has resources like Kids Konnected that explains cancer to kids at different ages so they understand what’s going on with their mom.)
These are the things the Delgados pass on to people at Komen breast cancer events, where the sisters and their relatives don their MGD (Mutant Gene Defier) logo for races and tributes – those who are first-timers to the terror of the disease, and those who are, most notably, alone. “It’s all about support,” says Lita. “We’ll sit there together at events but we see other women and they’re by themselves. So we put our hand on theirs and let them know they’re not alone.”
But the opportunities are everywhere, once you’re tuned into the subculture that is breast cancer. At events, certainly, but also for those in everyday life – a co-worker whose wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, for Mary, and a complete stranger at the Laguna Hills Mall, for Patricia, where a family walked out of a wig store looking shell-shocked. “I overheard one of the women say, ‘They charge to try on wigs,’” says Patricia. Then she noticed the bandage on the woman’s chest (“I know now that’s a port,” she says) and couldn’t walk away without passing along some of her own advice. “I ran after her and I was like, ‘How do I start this conversation?’” she says. “So I said, ‘I don’t mean to pry but I heard you coming out of the wig store. My whole family has cancer and I know that’s a port.” Patricia went on, telling her about their family wig store: Enid’s Wig Salon in Laguna Niguel, where they wouldn’t think of charging to try on wigs. “She just broke down in tears,” says Patricia. “The husband hugged us, the whole family hugged us. It’s little things like that where you think that at least some good comes out of having so much knowledge about breast cancer.”
“I have told people it’s one year of crap,” says Mary. “It’s one year to have the rest of your life.”
Stats, facts and quips from the Delgado sisters
Susan Delgado-Granger, 53
Diagnosed :: July 2004 at age 43
BRACA2 :: negative
Double mastectomy :: July 2004
Quotable :: “You can only read so many books. The books don’t say to chew ice when you’re getting the red chemo and they don’t tell you to use the little baby underarm pillows. They don’t tell you a lot of the stuff that real people throw in and those are the things that really help others.” –On how her experience with breast cancer helps her give real tips to others battling the disease
Mary Delgado-Wenlock, 45
Diagnosed :: September 2001 at age 32
BRACA2 :: positive
Double mastectomy :: December 2001
Quotable :: “It gives you a totally different perspective on life. You’re like, ‘Is somebody going to die? No? OK, so it’s not that big of a deal.’ Let’s just be nice to people.” –On how having breast cancer helps you focus on what’s truly important
Lita Delgado-Miller, 49
Diagnosed :: April 2002 at age 37
BRACA2 :: positive
Double mastectomy :: April 2002
Quotable :: “It looks like the beer company. People ask us for samples.” –On the Delgado
sisters’ MGD (Mutant Gene Defier) logo
Patricia Delgado, 42
Diagnosed :: Preventative double mastectomy at age 31
BRACA2 :: positive
Double mastectomy :: June 2002
Quotable :: “It was easy after watching Mary go through everything. I mean, she’s the strongest out of all of us and there were days when she couldn’t even talk. I wasn’t going to wait for it. They’re boobs, for God’s sake. You’ll replace them. Move on.” –On her decision to get a preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRACA2 gene
Tips from the Delgado Girls
An insider’s guide to getting through breast cancer
People want to help you. Let them! Everyone will feel better.
“Chemo brain” is real and does linger long after chemotherapy ends.
A bad hair day is better than no hair day.
If you visit an acupuncturist and have implants, be sure to tell the acupuncturist you have implants. You don’t want to spring a leak.
When using breast prosthetics, think double-sided tape. You never know when you may find one breast just above your belly button and the other breast under your arm.
Laughter truly is the best medicine. Not to say we didn’t cry, but laughing made us feel better