Our cancer journey (what to expect)

I found myself crying, anxiously waiting by the phone, and having far more questions than answers after getting the initial phone call that a loved one may have cancer. I received that call from my own mother, but she had surgery and survived. We received the call from my mother-in-law twice, the first round she won the fight against breast cancer. The second battle she courageously fought and lost.

I found myself trying to find answers regarding cancer online. I found a few totally factual sites. This is what happens in stage I, etc.. I learned everything I needed to know, but really didn’t know what to expect.

My mother-in-law Martha passed away last week from lung cancer.

For the first year and a half before diagnosis, Martha was ill. She had this cough that wouldn’t go away. At first the doctor thought it was a side effect from her medication. Then she was put on round after round of antibiotics for sinus infections or bronchitis. Eventually, she coughed more, seemed short of breath, and was wheezing. We told her to see her doctor who gave her another round of antibiotics. The day after the doctor visit her doctor called her up and said he couldn’t sleep all night because something seemed off. He wanted her to go in for more testing.

The tests revealed two masses, one in her stomach and one in her lungs. They did a biopsy of the mass in her stomach as it was a lot easier than doing a lung biopsy. They found an easily treatable form of cancer and started treatment assuming that the lung mass was also the same.

There was some relief that she was going to be okay.

But after treating the stomach mass which shrunk, they realized that the lung mass grew. After doing more testing and a lung biopsy, they discovered that she had stage 4 lung cancer. She had two different types of cancer at the same time.

We went from easily treatable right to no cure within a couple of months.

This is the time we wanted to make memories with her while she was up to traveling and doing things. We talked about flying to Vegas or a road trip to Chicago to see relatives. Martha didn’t want to do it though.

This is also the time to encourage your loved one to plan out their will or grant the power of attorney to someone trusted. But at that stage, it is hard to look death in the eye.

Then the Chemo started. Martha had to go in every 3 weeks. The first week after Chemo, she was the sickest. She couldn’t eat and threw up a lot. She was too sick to go anywhere. She needed someone to drive her to appointments and take care of her.

She also had to quit her job and had more medical bills which put upon them a huge unexpected financial burden.

After the first couple rounds of Chemo, they did more testing and found that the cancer moved to her brain which they treated with radiation. Martha had beautiful dark brown curly hair that was down to her waist. Her hair started falling out in clumps.

We started doing last things with her. We celebrated her last birthday, her last Mother’s Day..

Every time that we visited she got weaker and weaker. She lost more weight. Sometimes she was afraid that being around us would make her sicker. Sometimes she didn’t want us to leave.

Then there were days when she would eat and you could almost trick your mind into believing she was getting better.

What I remember the most now was the end days. The cancer starved her body. She lost about 100 lbs. It is hard to see someone down to skin and bones. After she could no longer have any more treatments, her hair grew back in wiry mismatched patches.

She collapsed on her way to the doctor appointment. The rescue squad took her to the hospital ICU. We had to wear gloves and gowns to visit. All of her dignity was stripped away.

She started getting blood transfusions. Afterwards, she almost seemed like herself. She looked better.

Then she moved from the hospital to a nursing home.

She could no longer walk. Sometimes when we would take her out of her room in her wheelchair, she would throw up.

At times she seemed agitated or anxious. Other times she was confused and would call us by the wrong names. At the end, she was not able to stay awake for our whole visit.

The visits were difficult. They typically ended with feelings of anger, sadness, or guilt.

She started gasping more for breath despite the oxygen. She stopped drinking, but had an IV in to hydrate her. The CNA’s had to come into the room every 2 hours to re position her because she could no longer move. She started sleeping more and more of our visits. She slept more than she was alert.

The last few days, her words were slurred and they didn’t make a lot of sense. She seemed restless and agitated. Her body started to get bruised and swollen.

The last visit, she didn’t wake up at all. She didn’t open her eyes. She tried to turn her head and open her mouth when we spoke to her, but didn’t seem able to.

The next day, she was gone.

We thought that there would be relief when her suffering came to an end. But it was really hard to get the last couple weeks out of our minds. My husband said he felt like he had post traumatic stress from watching his mother suffer. We saw her age 30 years in 3 weeks. She dropped a lot of weight in the last couple weeks too.

There was no hope that she was going to get better and that was hard.

It seems with each day that passes, we are able to let go a little more of the bad days and hold on to the good times.


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