What my mother's breast cancer diagnosis taught me about strength and resilience

"I’ve matured a lot as a person. I’ve learned to not sweat the small stuff and to focus on what matters," says Julia Neidigh.
Julia Neidigh and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.
Julia Neidigh and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

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By Julia Neidigh

I think a lot of people see their parents as superhuman, especially when they’re young. But even as an adult I’ve always thought of my mom, Vicki, as untouchable.

So when I recently found out she has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, I could barely process it. How could this happen to Superwoman—the person who has taken care of me my entire life? The person who constantly puts me before everything else?

My mom and I have always had a unique bond. In part because of my parents’ divorce, it’s really been her and me from the beginning. I always wanted to work at 30 Rock like she did—she’s currently vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast, and I’m a production assistant at NBC Sports in Connecticut. She always taught me never to say “no” to work, and last Christmas we even ended up working together at 30 Rock.

More importantly, she knows everything about everything in my life: dating, stupid things I did on drunken college nights, all the highs and lows. She never judges me. She puts everyone else before herself. And she knows what I need before I do.

Julia Neidigh and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

That was the case even on that horrible day 10 months ago, when she told me she’s sick. I had already known my mom wasn’t feeling like herself; she was going to help me move into a six-floor walkup and couldn’t because her legs were hurting so much. She’d been in pain at the gym, too.

Her doctor recommended she go to the hospital and that’s when she was told about the cancer.

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The next day, I went to her place to see her and meet her new puppy. My aunt was there and immediately I knew something was up. The mood was weird.

“Your mom is really sick,” my aunt began. And they told me: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. I was in a daze as they talked more.

I told them I had to take a walk and call two of our close family friends. Of course they already knew and were expecting my call. My mom knew exactly who I was going to reach out to, and she made sure I would have my support system. That’s classic Mom.

Julia Neidigh, as a baby, and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

I decided to stay through the rest of the weekend and go with Mom to all of her scans on that Monday, even though she kept telling me to go to work. But I wanted to meet every doctor who would be involved in her care.

But on that Monday, as we sat in the hospital awaiting all of her test results, I finally fell asleep in the waiting room after two sleepless nights. I woke up to the sound of Mom’s phone camera going off, followed by her laughing at me. Even in the scariest of situations, there she was laughing and smiling…at me.

More than 10 months later, Mom has kept up that same attitude. She’s still working, going to meetings, taking business trips, living her life. We’ve kind of swapped roles; every day I’m asking her what she ate and how well she rested, and I try to get her to take it easy. But she told me, “I need to keep going, and so do you.”

Julia Neidigh, as a baby, and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

She’s her same ambitious, bubbly self. She doesn’t get upset about being sick, even though the treatments are hard. She’s receiving oral chemo and gets a monthly IV treatment that helps with her bones, where the cancer has spread.

The doctors haven’t really given us a prognosis, and Mom doesn’t focus on that. She stays positive and continues to get up every morning and take the dogs for a walk. Her positivity has shown me that your mind plays a role in all of this, and the best thing you can do is keep your chin up.

It’s weird to say, but there have been a few other silver linings to Mom’s diagnosis. I’ve matured a lot as a person. I’ve learned to not sweat the small stuff and to focus on what matters—especially with my mom. She’s been planning fun weekend getaways that I of course cherish, but my absolute favorite times have been simply lying in bed together to watch our beloved Bravo shows like “Real Housewives.”

Julia Neidigh and her mother, Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

Mom has built a huge support system of friends and colleagues because she is so fantastic at connecting with people and helping them. Now she’s the one who needs support, and she has rallied all of those people around me, too.

So I have a large, strong group of women around me at all times. I know that no matter what happens to Mom, I have incredible people in my corner who will be there.

Vicki Neidigh, vice president of strategic initiatives at Comcast.Courtesy of Julia Neidigh

How can you possibly thank someone for that? Mom has always been huge on thank-you notes, drilling into me that you send them to people after interviews, events, any kind of help or kindness. Anyone who knows Mom has likely received a thank-you note from her.

But I’ve never given one to her. So this one is long overdue: Mom, thank you. Thank you for being my Superwoman. Thank you for always building me up even when I feel like I’m at my lowest point. Thank you for being so positive and strong even during your illness.

Thank you for making me into my mother’s daughter, the greatest gift of my life.

As told to Julianne Pepitone