To My MIL: If You’d Gotten Breast Cancer Today, You Might’ve Survived

Elitsa Deykova / iStock

Elitsa Deykova / iStock

To My Mother-in-Law,

I wonder, how common is it for women to feel the tug to write to their mother-in-law every October, as I do? I hear so many women vent about their mothers-in-law and I wonder what our relationship would be like. The only thing I have to complain about is the fact that you aren’t here. Breast cancer took you away 30 years ago — long before we even had the chance to meet. I have no idea if we would be the closest of friends or if you would be eying my countertops for fingerprints and correcting my go-to recipe for spaghetti sauce.


I remember the first memory of your illness that my husband shared with me. He described you reaching for your wig after falling, not wanting your children to see you in such a state. He remembers how quickly it all happened in the months prior. You were not feeling well and then you were diagnosed with breast cancer and then you were gone. In less than a year’s time, three children lost their mother. Gone undetected for too long, your cancer spread rapidly; there wasn’t much time for you to fight it.

You were only one year older than I am right now when you died. I have to wonder if you were me, if you were living now, would you have known sooner that you had breast cancer? Would self-exams and mammograms and the emphasis on early detection have helped you receive an earlier diagnosis? Would the surgery and aggressive chemo and radiation been a bit gentler and tailored to your needs had it been administered today, instead of 1976?

Maybe your cancer still would have spread rapidly, despite aggressive treatment. We will never know because doctors knew far less about the strain of breast cancer you suffered from than they do today. You weren’t offered genetic testing or a team of specialists to analyze your case. When you were diagnosed in the 1970s, treatment was much more of a one-size-fits-all approach, versus the customized approach patients are afforded these days.

I wonder if your last year would have been different, too? Would you have spent more time at home with your family instead of in the hospital? Would the new medications we use now have eased the powerful side effects of your treatments a bit? We’ve come so far in making patients more comfortable and shortening their hospitals stays so they can recover at home.

I wish you were here today and we were discussing how you survived breast cancer at a time when the survival rates were much lower; instead, our family is left to wonder what could have been.

Seeing your son in my sons allows me a glimpse of the childhood you watched unfold. I wonder, was there a day you looked at your son and knew you would never see him graduate? Was there a moment when you picked up your daughter and knew you would not choose her next Christmas dress? I wonder, how did you live with such pain and yet only leave your son with visions of your strength?

I can’t imagine how it feels to be a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, whether it be 1979 or 2016. The women I’ve seen battle this horrible disease are some of the strongest people I know. They have no choice but to endure this battle and like you, they put on a brave face and continue to fight day in and day out.

I hope that during an October in our near future, when I feel the urge to write to you again, I get to tell you the cancer that took you away from all of us finally has a cure. Then I’ll have new things to talk about in my letters to come.

Sending you so much love,

Your Daughter-in-Law