Linda Mustard laughed at herself when she reminisced about her breast cancer from two years ago. The illness itself surfaced as deadly serious, but her experience through five surgeries of treatment over nearly two years grew nutty.
“I came out of (double mastectomy) surgery with these big (temporary) breasts,” she said with a grin. “I thought, ‘Yes!’ But one side would never stay filled and would leak.
“So I had one D cup and one A cup.”
She broke into giggles.
“That’s why I didn’t go swimming that summer,” she said.
The 47-year-old Columbus resident shed no tears at the thought, especially when she realized she might have been swimming in much more serious matters had her cancer not been caught early enough at Stage 2. Doctors spotted it only through an ultrasound and confirmed it with a biopsy.
She got the news by phone while with family in Michigan. It was tough news to tell relatives.
“Actually, I felt more for them than for me,” Mustard said.
Her husband, Dan Mustard, her mate for nearly 21 years, struggles to remember specifics of how he coped with the results that shocked him. His sister had just been diagnosed a month earlier. A lot became a blur.
“You just learn to put one foot in front of the other,” he said.
The couple grew close in the early years of their marriage when they traveled the country as a full-time pop music act known as Mirror Mirror. So Dan Mustard knew his wife well enough to know that her humor could not be stifled even by cancer.
“I think some people might have underestimated her,” he said. “But I always knew she was a strong personality.”
She never knew until she became one of them that so many women were breast cancer survivors.
One, a mild acquaintance named Sally Flint, reached out to Linda Mustard and accompanied her to chemotherapy appointments. Columbus oncologist Dr. Michael Mak told Mustard they would give her “just enough chemo to kill the cancer but not enough to kill you.”
“Don’t mess up that balance,” she shot back.
A co-worker and fellow teacher’s assistant of special needs students at Columbus North High School took her to some doctor appointments. Friends among their fellowship at Garden City Church of Christ surrounded the couple in prayer and brought home-cooked meals, including favorites such as ham and mashed potatoes.
At one point in her illness, she tried to pinpoint where cancer intruded and how its shadow had crept over her, but Mak stopped her abruptly.
“Don’t do that to yourself,” he warned.
Her children had to learn to see their mother’s situation from their own perspective. Sixteen-year-old Evan recalled feeling extreme mood swings.
“It was traumatic,” he said. “I was trying to be kind of a mediator for all of us. So part of me was really emotional. And the other part of me was shutting off.”
Sean, now 10, endured nightmares in which his mom would die. He regularly awoke crying.
“I worried a lot,” he said, especially remembering when she returned home from one surgery still attached to drainage tubes and a pain pump.
“And all I wanted was just to be able to take a bath,” Linda Mustard said.
Later, Sean’s silliness would surface as he posed for pictures wearing some of her wigs.
She noticed that some friends declined to contact her for a while when her health was at its worst.
“They just didn’t know what to say,” Linda Mustard said. “And I understand.”
The illness, though gone now, has marked the family’s life permanently in at least one way.
“We used to say that some things were B.C., and that meant before children,” Linda Mustard said. “Now, sometimes when we say that, it means before cancer. This changes everything, and it changes the whole family.”
Every so often, Mustard dons a T-shirt her husband bought her for Christmas 2010. It reflects her trademark sarcasm.
A message on the front reads: “Of course they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”