Surviving without them
Three sisters, all under the age of 10, sit together in a room and pray. They don’t ask for new bikes, clothing or toys. The plea is short and simple: “Please don’t take my mom.”
One of the girls is nine-year-old Jennifer Garshell, now a senior elementary education major at Towson University. She and her two sisters, ages seven and one, try to wrap their heads around the concept that their mother is going to die. This has been Garshell’s fear since her mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when Garshell was four.
“[The hospice workers] say, ‘You know your mom’s dying,’ and that was just the hardest words to ever accept,” Garshell said. “Trying to explain that to a four-year-old was pretty difficult.”
Garshell is one of many Towson students who have lost a loved one to breast cancer. Her mother, Denise, was 35 when she died in September of 1998. Garshell was only a month into her fourth grade year.
“Having to go to school and face everybody saying, ‘Look, your mom died. How are you feeling?’ and I’m like, ‘She died, how am I supposed to feel,’ Garshell said.
Junior Lauren Zimmerman was older than Garshell when she found out her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her eighth grade year, her mother went through radiation and chemotherapy, which put her mother into remission.
But her mother’s cancer came back Zimmerman’s junior year of high school, and she passed away during Zimmerman’s senior year.
“I didn’t know it was so serious, I didn’t know everything that could occur with it,” Zimmerman said. “She was ready to go, but it was still hard for everybody.”
Zimmerman has plenty of breast cancer awareness apparel and she has a pink ribbon pinned to her backpack, and last January she found a more permanent way to keep the symbol with her.
She got a tattoo of a pink ribbon with wings on her foot.
“I wanted to get some to not necessarily remember her by, because I’ll always remember her,” Zimmerman said. “But something to signify everything she went through.”
Supporting the cause of breast cancer awareness is a common theme among students who have had close experiences with breast cancer.
Sophomore Shelby Ruby began volunteering with The Red Devils, a breast cancer support group for families, after her grandmother was diagnosed in 2007.
“When I first found out that she had to go to the doctors because of a lump, it made me nervous,” Ruby said. “You know the feeling when your stomach just drops out. It was that feeling, when all of your intestines curdle. And when they told us it was cancer, it was just so scary. The instant thought is that she’s going to die.”
Ruby’s grandmother beat the breast cancer, and though cancer has reemerged in her lung, Ruby said sees it in a lesson in living life to the fullest.
“I go visit my grandma so much more than I think I would otherwise and make sure I get as much time in as possible,” Ruby said. “She is a trooper, and I really am inspired by her will to fight and keep going.”
Garshell has participated in the Susan G. Komen Race For the Cure for the past five years, and she tries to bring one of her sisters with her to walk or volunteer.
“When I was in fourth grade, I thought I was the only one with a mom with breast cancer,” Garshell said. “And then to have the whole Race for the Cure and see all these people who’ve had it, and even men who have it. I never know men could have it … and you see them there supporting themselves or their wives.”
The race, which was Sunday, Oct. 3, in Hunt Valley, was held three weeks later in 2009. Garshell remembers snow falling around her and her sister, a 19-year-old student at Hood College.
“My sister was complaining the whole time and I just kept telling her, “These women have gone through years of breast cancer. You can suck it up for a couple hours,” Garshell said.