My Mother’s Breast Cancer Before Pink Ribbons


As a divorce mediator, I have often seen marriages fall apart after one spouse has been through a major illness – the emotional and financial toll of the illness has not united the couple – but driven them apart.

On a personal level, the blog I’ve written for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is dedicated to my mother – who had breast cancer before it was fashionable. By fashionable I mean, before it was popular to talk openly about the disease and advocate for women diagnosed with it.

Before her diagnosis, my mother was proud of her womanly curves, her voluptuous breasts.

In 1969, after my mother received her diagnosis:

This is what she didn’t have:

  • Breast Cancer Awareness Month
  • People walking to find a cure and honor survivors
  • People wearing pink ribbons to show they care
  • A community she could lean on for support
  • The option of a lumpectomy or reconstructive surgery though she would have been a good candidate for either.


This is what she had:

  • A total mastectomy of her right breast – all that remained was a scar down her chest wall, like a long zipper
  • Luck. In those days chemotherapy often wasn’t given until it was too late. It turned out my mother didn’t need it. Other women she knew weren’t as fortunate. A good friend of my mother’s said that her ear bothered her, but her doctor told her it was nothing. Six months later the woman was dead.
  • A world that was silent to her suffering – a world where people still whispered about cancer – still called it The Big C.

This is what I think she had:

  • Fear – though she never talked about being afraid. Not to me, her thirteen year old daughter. Not to my father or her friends. But she must have been.
  • Shame – There was no pride in being a survivor of breast cancer in 1969. There was only shame. This once voluptuous woman saw reflected in a mirror one large breast, and one barren side. She must have realized the world considered her chest a freakish sight.

This is what she remained:

My mother. Courageous. Indefatigable. Going about her day as if nothing had changed her. As if she weren’t waiting to hear whether breast cancer would kill her.

In this month, I want to honor the memory of my mother and all the other women who suffered with breast cancer alone, never experiencing the camaraderie, the comfort of knowing they were loved and respected as survivors.

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About Joanne Naiman

A principal of Reasonable Divorce Resolutions, Joanne is a certified divorce mediator and has been a practicing attorney for over 20 years. She writes on divorce for national audiences. Joanne won a Clarion Award for Excellence in News Reporting for The National Law Journal article: “The Deadly Practice of Divorce.” She also contributes as a blogger on divorce mediation for The Huffington Post. In addition to her RDR divorce mediation practice, Joanne serves on the New York City Family Court Custody Mediation Panel.

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