A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts. ~Washington Irving
My mother was diagnosed with cancer in April of 2005. She had had bouts of nausea and had no appetite. Many weeks before, she had been put on a beta blocker for her high blood pressure and an irregular heart beat and we noticed that this is when her symptoms of nausea and inappetance began. She was finally hospitalized for these symptoms and it was during this hospital visit that a mass was discovered on her liver during an abdominal CT scan. On April 19, 2005, my husband and I took my mother to her G.I. doctor, where we received the diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma. Bile duct cancer. Inoperable. My mother had been a 20 year survivor of colon cancer and this G.I. doctor knew her well. As I sat next to her holding her hand when the doctor told us her diagnosis, I was surprised by mother’s courage at hearing this news. She didn’t cry…. or not right then anyway. We received both good news and bad news along with this cancer diagnosis. The “good” news was that the doctor told us that if she “had” to have cancer, that this was probably one of the better cancers to have as it was a very slow progressing cancer. It also had a low metastatic rate (meaning it didn’t have a tendency to spread to other areas of the body). The bad news (besides the fact that it was inoperable and not responsive to any chemo), was that this type of cancer could be extremely painful. The doctor told us we could stop the beta blocker, just to see if her nausea and anorexia improved. Within days, she got her appetite back, and her nausea disappeared… proof to me that her symptoms were NOT due to her cancer, but to her medication. Her nausea never returned.
Several months after her diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma, my mother noticed a hard lump in her throat under her left ear. I took her to an ENT doctor who just kept telling us it didn’t look good. He suspected this was an enlarged cancerous lymph node. She was hospitalized for an exploratory surgery and biopsy. Diagnosis: a neuroendocrine tumor in her neck. Inoperable. Not related at all to her liver cancer. No, this was a whole new baby. My mother had watched her husband (my father) die a slow death to colon cancer. She vowed that she would never undergo chemotherapy herself, after seeing the horrific side effects my father endured. But my mother was not ready to die. She wanted to live and she wanted to fight. After all, she had whooped cancer’s butt once already. She was seeing an oncologist, who was the kindest, most gentle doctor. We adored him. My mother decided she would go through chemotherapy for the throat cancer. My sisters were both employed full-time, so I usually took my mother for her treatments. I was allowed to go back into the “chemo room” and sit with her. I think my mother was probably the only woman on the planet who actually seemed to “enjoy” going for chemotherapy. She loved meeting and talking to the other patients she would meet there and see week after week. She enjoyed joking around with the patients, the nurses and the techs. My mother could be very witty and charming and people liked her. We won’t talk about how she gained control over the remote almost every week she was there and forced the other patients to watch her favorite show, Judge Judy. She was definitely the class clown in the “chemotherapy classroom.” The other patients loved her. One patient told me that she had gone for her regular chemo treatment and was sad and disappointed to find that my mother would not be in there with her (my mother’s day had been switched that particular week). She told me my mother was always a hoot and made her laugh, which was very comforting to her. While there, when I wasn’t reading or talking to my mother, I stayed busy retrieving blankets for patients and getting snacks for them. It made me feel useful. But unlike my mother, I dreaded chemo days. I truly wanted to be with my mother, but at the same time, it was tremendously sad and hard for me to sit there. It was a reminder to me that cancer was once again a part of my life. And then there were all the other patients. There was the young thirty something drop dead gorgeous mother who had two young babies at home who had just received her diagnosis and was starting treatment. There was a middle aged man who twisted and turned in his chair, overcome from the nausea from his chemo drugs. There was the old man….. I’m not sure how old exactly but by his appearance, I guessed him to be in his late 80’s or early 90’s. He was always alone and always asleep and covered up to his chin in blankets. To be honest, I used to periodically check his breathing just to document the fact that he was still alive. Yep, I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but my mother always looked forward to her treatments. She had almost no side effects other than some fatigue and weakness which was caused by the chemotherapy drugs destroying her red blood cells and making her anemic.
Even losing all of her hair was not as traumatic for my mother as we all had thought it would be. I remember being the one who was traumatized by it. I had always thought that when one lost their hair from chemotherapy that it was a very gradual process. Not so with my mother (who admitted she helped speed up the process a little). I think it was after her third treatment when I went over to her house to visit. My mother greeted me at the door and much to my surprise, she was completely bald! I had seen her the week before and she had had hair. Thinning hair, true, but hair all the same. I tried to hide my look of complete surprise, but I’m sure I didn’t do a very good job. My mother laughed when she saw my expression and asked me what I thought of my “now bald mother.” She told me that she had taken a shower that morning and while washing her hair, kept getting huge handfuls of hair. She told me that she just thought, “To hell with this”, and proceeded to stand in the shower and pull out every bit of remaining hair (that probably would have fallen out on its own shortly anyway). Looking back, I think it may have made her feel somewhat in control which I think is important for a person experiencing cancer. I can tell you, it’s a shock seeing your mother completely bald. There has always been a history of female baldness in my mother’s side of the family (a male pattern baldness from what I understand), so my mother had worn a hairpiece or wig for years anyway. I think somehow that all prepared her for when she lost her hair during cancer treatment and it helped her deal with it better.
Prior to Christmas of 2005, we received the good news that my mother’s cancer was responding well to the treatment and that all was looking good. There was no sign of the throat cancer. Our next cancer related appointment was in early February for a CT scan. We were getting a break and were told to just enjoy the holidays. We had a wonderful Thanksgiving that year (despite the chemo, my mother had a voracious appetite and ate more than anybody). Christmas was bittersweet. My mother really enjoyed Christmas that year, happy with her good news that the chemo was doing its job, but fully knowing that this would be her last Christmas. I particularly remember her beautiful smile. Looking at her, you would never know she was as sick as she was. I remember it being bitter cold that Christmas evening. I was walking her dog late that night at my house and the skies were crystal clear (as they usually are on very cold nights). The stars were shining brightly and easy to see. I remember standing in my front yard, looking up at the stars and thanking God for giving us a good last Christmas together. I remember also feeling a little angry that night and yes, maybe a little angry at God, because I knew too, that I had just celebrated the last Christmas with my mother. I was losing my mother and there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it.
On Valentines Day of 2006, we got the news that my mother’s throat cancer had metastasized to her lungs. So now we were dealing with THREE types of cancer: bile duct cancer, throat cancer and lung cancer. This was her third diagnosis of cancer in less than a year. It was almost more than any of us could bear. We were told that any further treatment would be futile. My mother was in the fight of her life, but unfortunately, the cancer was winning. I remember my mother cried on the way home. I can’t tell you how helpless I felt at that very moment. I was at a loss for words to comfort my mother. She was dying…. what could I possibly say that would comfort her? We drove home pretty much in silence, with the only sound being just her occasional sniffles. I had a lump in my throat as big as a tennis ball. I took her home and we talked. She cried some more. All I kept saying to her was that I was sorry- I was sorry that this was happening to her. And I was. But for some reason, it didn’t seem like it was the “right” thing to say, nor was it adequate. I tried fixing my mother something to eat but she said she had lost her appetite. It was then that my mother relayed to me about how scared she was to die, and how she had a fear of dying alone. I tried to comfort her and told her I thought these were very “normal” feelings and fears to have. And I absolutely assured her she would NOT be alone when she died (a promise I later felt quite guilty for making since I really had no control over the timing of her death). I didn’t want to leave her that day. I told her I would spend the night with her and keep her company but she assured me she would be okay and that I should get home to my family. I ended up going home, but even now, I often wish I had stayed that night. My mother didn’t need to be alone after hearing such horrendous news. I drove home that evening angry, exhausted, and saddened. Her cancer was taking its toll on me too.