The Gift of Cancer


I was working in Downtown Atlanta in the big Georgia Power building, up on the 29th floor.  No matter how busy I tried to be, I could not escape this gut feeling I had that there was something wrong out there in the world – my world.  Cell phone reception in that building was virtually non existent, so I was surprised when I saw my sister was calling. A sense of relief and dread simultaneously washed over me as I instinctively knew this was the call I had been waiting for.  All she said was “You need to come home – now.” And I knew.  I said, almost to myself, “It’s mom and she has cancer.”  A stern “Yes.” was all that was said on the other end of the line.

The rest of that day is a complete blur.  I know I had to drive home then drive to the small town my family lived in, but cannot remember any of it.  I just remember knowing that if our feisty, Never-been-in-the-hospital-I-hate-doctors mother was actually in the hospital, it had to be very bad. And it was.  Stage 4+ Ovarian cancer is enough to take anyone down and my mother was no exception. She had collapsed in the kitchen and lay on the floor calling for help until my father got there.  She still somehow managed to fight with the nurses and the rest of the medical staff upon coming to at the hospital and finding out they were trying to undress her.  She would do that herself, thankyouverymuch.  Then, according to witnesses, she passed out again and went into emergency surgery.

Now, if you have never seen anyone in the hospital, especially a close relative, the staff should really prepare you.  As I walked in the room, my knees left me and I nearly hit the floor.  She seemed so small compared to all the equipment around her.  She had so many tubes and wires coming out of her that she looked like the back of a stereo system.  She was on a lot of pain medication and was in and out of consciousness.  She knew something was wrong, but it did not seem to register just how bad it was.  She did however find the strength to still be feisty with the doctors and nurses.

Then we got the news; terminal, maybe two years to live with no guarantee of the quality of life.  Dad heard the news first, by himself and my heart broke for him.  They had been married for 35 years and were truly the love of each others life.  It was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry, but then it was the first time she had ever been so sick and there was nothing he could do to help her.

It is very interesting the roles in which a family play when one of their own is sick.  And instinctively we all knew our roles:  My Brother-in-law worked at the hospital, so he would explain all the terminology, my sister was very clinical and took care of the communication with close friends and family, answered any questions and took care of Dad.  Dad made sure Mom had everything that she needed.  I was the watcher.  I sat with my Mom day and night to make sure she was never alone if she needed a nurse, when she came to, or if an emergency happened.

The second night there was the emergency.  I was awakened by the sound of alarms going off in the room and my Mom telling me she was cold. When up to give her my blanket, I saw where the IV in her neck had come out, then I saw all the blood.  It was barley dripping out, but I could see where it had poured out of her; puddled around her on the bed and even the floor.  No wonder she is cold, I thought, she’s bleeding to death.  I calmly said I would be back with a warm blanket from the nurses…and RAN out of the room as fast as I could.  I am not sure why the alarms did not alert the nurses that something was wrong, but when I told them the situation all three of them beat me back to the room.  They immediately hooked her IV back. Got her cleaned up, and gave her several pints of blood.  As I watched them working, the horrible thought occurred to me that if I had not woken up, she would have bled to death right beside me.  I did not sleep the rest of the week while I watched over her.

My other role in the family was to provide comic relief as I clumsily tripped, fell and stumbled over the equipment, wires and tubes in the room.  One night I actually brought a piece of equipment down to the floor with a loud crash.  And the more sleep deprived I was, the clumsier I got.  Spilling drinks on the priest who came to visit, falling on nurses, tripping over…my own feet onto expensive pieces of equipment.  Ahhh, nothing like a klutz in your hospital room.

When she got out of the hospital is when the real work started.  She had to recover from the emergency surgery only to face a grueling schedule of chemotherapy.  I went with her, while she insisted she was fine, to her first chemo treatment.  It was the first and only time I have ever seen my mother scared.  She was only 59, yet to her generation chemotherapy was worse than the cancer itself.  I watched her as she tried to talk to me in the room, telling me she was fine, yet so scared her lips were trembling.  She was trying to be so brave for me, a true mother to the end.  She would try to talk and tell me something funny she saw and the laugh would almost turn into a sob and she would quickly tell me she was not scared.  I just smiled and said “I know, but it makes me feel better to be here with you.”  I admire her bravery so much because I don’t think I could have been that brave at all.  We have never talked about that day, but I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been there to provide comfort to her as she had done for me so many times in my life.

As it turned out the actuall process of chemo was easier than both of us thought is would be.  They had surgically inserted a “port” in her chest that had a little plastic straw that would attach the chemo IV.  She would sit and read for about an hour while the chemo was put into her body.  Then she went home.  It is what the chemo did to her body and how weak it made her that was so hard.  She had one week of it, then the next three to recover and that was the schedule for 6 months.  They say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger…well, the chemo nearly killed her.

She was admitted to the hospital on a Thursday with Chemo poisoning – a bad side effect to the type of chemo she was receiving – and was not expected to live through the weekend.  She said she did not understand why they put her in medical ICU; she knew she wasn’t going to die.  And she didn’t.  When her doctors came in the following Monday, instead of finding notice of her death, they found a massage from her on their answering machine.  She informed them that they could come and check her out or she was just going to walk out of the hospital without signing a single piece of paper.  Either way, she was leaving at noon.

About a year later, the cancer was back, and so were the chemo treatments.  This time radiation was also added to the mix. The holidays were approaching and she would carry around what looked like a large old fashioned tape recorder attached to her by chords and wires.  This device dispensed the chemo around the clock.  While carrying her “recorder” around, she would go into the Doctors office several times a week to get her radiation treatments.  Again I cannot even imagine what it was like trying to do both treatments at the same time, while taking care of the family during the holidays.  She rested while she could, are very little and refused to take any pain medication because it made her feel “loopy and out of it”.  So she did all of that with no pain medication.  The thought of this makes me proud and breaks my heart at the same time.

It had been 18 months since she was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we were all hopeful but afraid that the cancer coming back meant we would lose her.  I had since moved away to New York and the guilt of not being there for my family kept me awake at night.  But every time I even mentioned the idea of coming back home my mother would tell me absolutely not.  She was not going to allow me to put my life on hold to be with her. She was not going to allow me to sacrifice my dreams when she was going to be fine. The strength and courage it took for her to say that is something I still marvel at today.

She got through the radiation and chemo, but it was very tough.  We were a close family before, but her illness brought us even closer.  It was the first time we got to see each other not as family members, but as humans. We saw each other in ways we had never seen each other before and were stronger because of it.  We take every day as the gift it is and never take each other for granted.

It was also during this time that I saw how in love my parents really are with each other.  Soon after she was diagnosed as terminal and only given two years to live, I asked my mother an important question.  I wanted to know if there was anything when wanted to do during the last years of her life.  She looked at my Dad, smiled and said “For 35 years your father has worked hard and sacrificed to give me the lifestyle that I wanted.  Now, these last years I give to him.  I will go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do.”  I just started sobbing right then and there. I can only hope to be lucky enough to give and receive love like that.

Her last treatment was over 7 years ago. Doctors have said that she in their miracle because she was not supposed to live.  She had LESS than a 1% chance of survival.   During that time we questioned our faith, had conversations with God, maybe even a few arguments with Him.  But in the end, I truly believe it was our faith, our love and my Mother’s sheer stubbornness, that got her through.  She has since said that God decides when she will go, not the doctors.  Amen.

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