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'She Fought So Hard to Live'

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this was written to honor my mother and every life touched by this devastating disease.

Who would have thought a short walk on the beach on an ordinary day could symbolize so many things. For me, it stood for inexpressible joy, safety, sorrow, and imminent heartbreak. My most precious memory, other than seeing my children for the first time, is as beautiful as it is mournful.

There weren’t many people on the beach that fall day in 1995. The day was drawing to a close for many of the surfers and sun-worshippers. An alliance between the warm sun and San Diego sky seemed to keep the clouds at bay. Santa Ana winds blew, but not too hard; just enough to spray us with a fine ocean mist that kept us cool. White-capped waves poked out from under their vast blue-green blanket and the seagulls chased after the retreating waves as if they had the power to scare them away. I could taste salt in the air and smell that recipe of salt, sand, and water that only the ocean can claim.

My family strolled together side-by-side. I followed a few steps behind to take it all inincluding them. My dad was on the far left—strong and distant, but always leading the way. My brother and sister were on the right. Those actors, grown-ups now, but who had parts in all of my childhood experiences. My toddler son ran, skipped, and jumped; discovering the exciting, the strange, and the possibility in everything around him. My mother walked between them. She was in the center like she always was—a bridge between father and child. She was my best friend and she was dying of cancer. She received the news that she had breast cancer the previous year. Like a death sentence, it would take her life in twelve brief months.

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Nonetheless, at that moment we were smiling and we were together. It reminded me of when I was a kid on a family outing, feeling safe and happy and wishing the moment would last forever, except I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was an adult with a little one of my own. And the childhood joy I was reliving was tempered with the realization that this would probably be the last time everything would be so perfect and feel so right. Soon my mother would grow thin and frail from the chemotherapy. Soon she wouldn’t be able to walk at all. She fought so hard to live, but in a little while this disease would steal her away.

Memories of that afternoon by the ocean are attended by, both, smiles and tears. I miss my mom very much, but as long as I remember her on that day being strong, happy, and with me, then I get to keep her forever.

“Breast cancer is a major cause of cancer death in American Indian and Alaska Native women. Even though native women have lower breast cancer rates than white women, they are more likely than white women to be diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat. Also breast cancer rates vary in different parts of the country. For instance, breast cancer rates are highest in Alaska, where native women have rates similar to those of white women. Many native women do not get breast cancer screening, even when it's available to them. The belief that cancer can't be beat is one reason native women might avoid screening.”

– Womenshealth.gov

Crystal Willcuts, Mnicoujou Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and is an artist, writer, and poet currently residing in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with her husband and two children.