Love is the best medicine


Zoey Laird, Carpe Diem staff

The speck was as big as a tiny pinprick of light. It hadn’t been there last year. The doctor comforted her saying, “98 percent of these are nothing. It’s usually benign, no worries.”

Mary Beth Oxley was that two percent.

About a week after her biopsy, the surgeon called and delivered the news: it was cancer.

The Oxley family was about to experience a bout with breast cancer. This diagnosis faces many, however, what changes from patient to patient is the families reaction. “I think what really makes a difference for most patients is whether or not they have support,” said Doctor Champney, Mary Beth’s surgeon.

Stewart and Elizabeth Oxley, Mary Beth’s children, remember their mom first telling the family she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It happened over the dinner table. “She’d never brought it up before. I didn’t even know she was going to get a mammogram,” said Elizabeth.

The news came as a painful surprise. “I was really scared,” Stewart said. “I’d heard about a few other people in my neighborhood whose parents had been diagnosed with cancer…[it’s like] this is actually happening to me.” At the time, Stewart was in eighth grade and Elizabeth was in seventh.

Mary Beth Oxley felt more angry than scared: why couldn’t the numbers play out for her?

Oxley’s case was caught at stage one, which means no telltale cancer lump had formed. Confined and controlled, it was nothing she could die from. Comforted by doctor’s words, Oxley wouldn’t let herself panic. “At that point I wasn’t worried at all,” Mary Beth said. “I just kept thinking that I had to [reach] the next step.”

Compared to less fortunate neighbors, the Oxleys knew they were lucky. Some of these cases involved severe treatments that ended tragically. “It’s a real rarity to catch [breast cancer] early and get it diagnosed so quickly. Most other people wouldn’t know until the last second. Then it’s done. And it’s a lost cause to do anything [about it],” said Elizabeth. “It wasn’t [like that] for me. And I’m really [grateful] for it.”

Despite the fortunate circumstances, the family couldn’t help but feel frightened. “[It was] like we were in a horror movie,” Elizabeth said. As a way of shielding one another from feeling more stress, everyone made an effort to keep their worries private. “If [anyone] had shown all of their real emotions, then mom would have felt more pressure,” Stewart said. Mary Beth noticed this new dynamic in the family. “It was like we were all trying to out-calm each other…I think that they were protecting me by not bringing their worries to me.” Even with her family’s concern, Mary Beth had plenty anxiety of her own.

Because of the mild nature nature of her diagnosis, Oxley felt insecure compared to more extreme cases.“I felt almost like an imposter. [As if] I didn’t have a right to be upset,” Oxley said. But she did. The odds of breast cancer are quite slim. Only 12.2 percent of women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. Even so, it has the second highest death rate of any cancer type for females.

The Oxleys relied on each other for positive energy through these hard times. Doctor Champney notices the patients initial emotions greatly affect the family, and vice versa. “I think the family’s emotions parallel the patients reaction… It makes a real difference for most patients getting through…whatever they’re having to go through.”

Mary Beth certainly received support from her family.“Andy [my husband] and I talked…I think he looked to me to gauge how I was going to react and how the family should react,” she said. Oxley felt genuinely unconcerned about the diagnosis, so she assumed the same for her family. “I really thought, because I wasn’t worried about it, I thought [that] they weren’t worried about it [either].” But that wasn’t necessarily true.

This worry materialized in subtle ways that affected the family climate. Stewart and Elizabeth’s relationship changed as they both dealt with the situation. Their interactions regularly became stressful. “It was more like pent up aggression,” Elizabeth said. “I think [the cancer] kind of seeped into our arguments and just made us want to fight something…so we fought each other.” Little did the Oxleys know, there would be more to come.

In February of 2012, two years after the breast cancer, the oncologist told Mary Beth there was a nodule on her thyroid. Don’t worry, they said, 96% percent of these are nothing.

All she could think was that she had heard this story before.

Oxley felt all of the suppressed emotions from the first diagnosis come crashing down. “I was freaked out…With the breast cancer…I was so not worried,” Oxley said. “But with this I was like oh my god, I’m gonna die.”

It took about four weeks to receive the results of the biopsy. Four weeks to know if the cancer had returned.

This was an excruciating time for Mary Beth. “I kept trying to get back that feeling that I had with the breast cancer…I’m gonna play the odds, what the chances, this is going to be fine,” Oxley said. “But my emotions got the best of me.”

Her results finally arrived and Mary Beth was cancer free.Though the worst was over, the Oxleys were left reeling from the scare. “I was so shocked at how I handled that,” Oxley said. All those pent up feelings were suddenly made real. Elizabeth couldn’t believe their good fortune.“I didn’t think we would be lucky two times.”

As the threat of cancer dissipated, so did much of the tension within the Oxley home. Constant fighting between Elizabeth and her brother slowed dramatically. They recognized the unnecessary stress arguing put on their parents. The scare served as a reminder of how important family is. “It gave everybody a little reality check that we can’t take each other for granted,” Mary Beth said.

Today, the Oxleys have put the past behind them. Mary Beth looks ahead with confidence. “I’m not worried about the cancer. I can’t be,” Oxley said. “You have to [tell yourself] that it’s not going to come back… I’m not going to worry about it.” She still keeps a note from Stewart in her desk, telling her how much he cares . She still gets mammograms every year. But she’s not going to let cancer slow her down anytime soon.

“I realize that I should really appreciate the people in my life… for being there for me,” said Elizabeth. In the end, the Oxleys realize that all we can do is support family and stay optimistic for the sake of everyone involved.“Part of living every day well is loving the people around you… I think that my kids do that, I think that my husband does that,” Mary Beth said.

The Oxleys feel closer, stronger, and more lucky than ever. “I think it did bring us together a little bit more.” said Stewart. Whatever happens, when you’re a family, you still have love. No matter how unlikely the cancer, how unexpected the reactions, the Oxley’s will have each other. And that’s what makes the future something to look forward to.