James Miller and his mother, Blair.
James Miller and his mother, Blair.

Each October, you hear the stories — sometimes of sadness and uncertainty, others of triumph and new-found appreciation. Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings a range of emotions for people remembering loved ones or those who remember battling the illness and who, now, work as survivors to raise funds and awareness.

We often hear the stories of those who experienced breast cancer — we hear about their determination, their spirit, their legacies. But, behind the scenes of each of the courageous women and men who battle breast cancer, you’ll often find the strong, unwavering support of family and friends without whom many survivors say they couldn’t have made it.

Raleigh’s James Miller and Charlotte’s Davey Roberson are just two of the legions of family and friends who have stood strongly by their loved ones during their times of need. For both men, life changed when they learned their mothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Miller had just landed in London for a study-abroad program in 2004 when he received a call from his mother, Blair.

“My mother didn’t want to reveal she had breast cancer because she knew I wouldn’t leave for my study-abroad,” Miller says. “She genuinely held all that information until I was gone and couldn’t come back.”

But, Miller still wanted to. Standing at Heathrow airport and talking to his mom on the phone, Miller demanded that he should return to the U.S. His mother wouldn’t let him.

“She said, ‘This is something I never got to do and now I get to live it through all the photos you’ll be sending me,’” Miller recounts.

“She was so incredibly supportive of my life even while hers was diminishing quickly,” Miller adds.

From 3,000 miles away, Miller, the youngest of three children, stayed as updated as he could and when he finally returned, he devoted all his time to his mother.

“I’m the mama’s boy,” he says.

In Charlotte, Roberson and his mother Karen found themselves facing the challenge together.

“We found out together,” Roberson says. “I went with her to the doctor’s office. She was going to be screened for allergy shots.”

An X-ray, he says, led to the eventual breast cancer diagnosis.

“Mom’s doctor called us but wouldn’t give us any information over the phone and told us to come into the office,” he says. “We actually went together and found out together and decided together what the next steps were going to be.”

Roberson made sure he was at every doctor’s appointment and chemo-therapy treatment. He only missed two, due to work conflicts. Navigating the healthcare system and coming face-to-face with the realities of his mother’s challenge was daunting, says Roberson.

“You know people who have gone through it, but you haven’t been through it yourself and you just don’t know what to expect,” he says. “You go in the first day at the chemo room and you see all sorts of different people waiting to get their treatment. That was the first thing that really hit me.”

And, standing with his mother during her first rounds of treatment were tough, too.

“That first medicine — the bad medicine that makes you lose your hair — watching that go in and knowing what was going to be coming, it was hard,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for if she got sick on the way home or what happened when we got home.”

Roberson says caregivers like him often face personal challenges of their own. “You change your life around it. You start literally moving your schedule around and deciding what is important for you to do and what is not important for you to do,” he says. “I had to give up a few commitments — I couldn’t sing in the men’s choir anymore — because I felt like I couldn’t give up the time.”

Miller and Roberson both say they were glad they were able to take the time to be with their mothers. But, Roberson says it was important for him — and other caregivers, too — to have support systems of their own.

“It’s something you don’t want to go through alone,” he says. “Whether you’re the person who is diagnosed or the person who becomes the caregiver, it’s incredibly hard and it feels lonely at times. Sometimes I had to call a friend and ask them, ‘Help me through this right now, I need some clarity, tell me that I’m doing the right thing and tell me everything will be okay and there is light at the end of the tunnel,’ because, at the time, the tunnel seemed very dark.”

The uncertainty back then, Roberson says, has faded. Nearly two months ago, his mother was deemed cancer free. He’s turned the passion he had for caregiving to supporting larger efforts. His twice-monthly trivia nights he hosts with friends often raise funds for groups like Susan G. Komen.

And, it’s groups like Komen, Miller says, that give breast cancer patients, their caregivers, families and friends the hope and information they need to survive.

“I think a lot of women have benefited highly from the people who have gotten up and told their stories and been very frank about their experiences,” Miller says. “A lot of amazing people are stepping up and forming and starting these great non-profits and investing to help bring awareness and fundraising.” : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.