Flowers for Flora
by Ramona Dunlap
|Every time I get a mammogram, I think of my Aunt Flora who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was in her 30s. Over the past few years, I’ve scheduled my breast screenings close to my birthday because it makes it easier for me to remember to get it done. I closed out my birthday month by getting my annual mammogram and ultrasound (because I have dense breasts). Now, it’s the first day of October and in my aunt’s honor I am kicking off Breast Cancer Awareness Month with this memory.|
Yesterday, at the doctor’s office while I was completing the screening questions, Aunt Flo, as I often called her, came to mind. As much as I hate the pain of feeling my breasts being compressed between that plastic plate and the mammogram machine, in my mind, it’s a necessary evil that must be endured. My Aunt Flo is one of the reasons why I take the pain and won’t miss an annual breast exam.
You see, I was about 4 years old when I heard the adults in my family say that Aunt Flo had breast cancer. I didn’t know what cancer was, but from their expressions I knew it was serious. Honestly, I am not quite sure of the conversations my parents and other family members had about her condition, I just remember looking at my aunt and thinking she didn’t look sick.
The other thing I recalled was my aunt’s sassiness. More than anything, I remember that she always wore lipstick and she always looked great to me! Even though I didn’t know what breast cancer was,I knew what breasts were. With that knowledge, I had the feeling that they were an important part of a woman’s body. How did I know this? I don’t know. Perhaps I was paying attention to ‘grown folks business’ when people were discussing if Aunt Flo was going to have her breasts removed.
Now that I am a grown woman, I wonder what was going through my aunt’s mind back then. Was she afraid? Did she have concerns about losing her breasts? Was she concerned about her relationship and her body image? Did she have the support that she needed financially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? These are questions that I never asked.
The good news is that Aunt Flo’s cancer went into remission. Because she was a survivor, I never really thought much about her cancer…when I was a child or a young adult for that matter. I didn’t know if she had a lumpectomy or mastectomy or if she had reconstructive surgery.
While I was in college, I spent quite a bit of time with Aunt Flo. She was still the same sassy woman of my youth, but I had come into my own and I could give it back to her a little bit (lol). We always had a good time in each other’s company. Still, I never said anything to her related to cancer.
Unfortunately, Aunt Flo’s cancer returned during my senior year of college. On one occasion, after she returned home from the hospital, she asked me to come over to wash her hair. Because I was working part-time at a hair salon, I told her to come to the salon and I would wash her hair there. She responded, “girl, you better get your little behind over here and wash your aunt’s hair.” Like I said, she was sassy and spicy too. My aunt had spoken, and I did as she told me.
Washing her hair, as she bent over her bathtub of all places, was a deeply intimate experience. It is a memory that I will never forget. This time that she had cancer was different from that time when I was a little girl. This time I knew what cancer was and I was afraid. This time I saw the worry and concern in my aunt’s face, even though she was giving me all the sass, love, and strength that she could muster to hide her feelings.
All that that said, we still did not talk about her cancer diagnosis. I didn’t know what kind of cancer was present in her body, the stage, or the outlook. She was a private woman and I dare not invade her privacy.
Years later, during the holiday season of 2001, my sister and I visited with Aunt Flo at her home. She was getting ready for work, being her usual talkative self. She told us that she was about to get a new home. Confused, my sister and I were looking at her and each other like, what is she talking about. Shortly thereafter, in the following year, Aunt Flo made heaven her new home. In her own special way, without mentioning her illness, she was preparing us for what was next in her journey.
Aunt Flora was a woman of great dignity, strength, and beauty. I am sure I got my sassiness from her. It is with her spirit that I hope her memory will encourage you to schedule your annual mammogram if you are of age or your family history suggests you should do it earlier. Know your family’s medical history. Share it with your doctors. Get to know your body. Make sure you check your breasts monthly and let your doctor know right away if something doesn’t feel right.
October 1, 2021