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.

 

Good note endings

For me, it is the anticipation of an event that causes excitement, apprehension, or foreboding. The planning of a vacation. Waiting for a special day. Saying good bye..

It is not always a bad thing to know that your loved one is dying. I think of a friend whose mother died unexpectedly right after an argument. We have been given this special time to mend relationships, to end things on a good note..

Friday night we took Angel to say good bye to her grandma before leaving for college. Friday my son Alex came down with strep, the second in our household. I didn’t want Angel to leave without saying good bye to her grandma. I admit I was worried that although Paul, Angel, and I weren’t symptomatic that we could be carriers of strep into a nursing home full of vulnerable people. It wasn’t a good feeling. I asked the nurse and pharmacist, but they didn’t give me a straight answer. We decided to go anyway, since this would probably be Angel’s final visit with her grandma.

We arrived at the nursing home late on Friday night. It was a big complex and we didn’t know where to go. The outside doors were locked and we ended up walking around outside in the bitter cold on icy sidewalks trying to find a way in. I felt exhausted and cold. I was so tired that I didn’t want to be there, but it wasn’t about me.

We were finally able to find the main entrance. It was warm, empty, and inviting. There was a video showing a happy elderly couple entering their new home. It pleasantly reminded me of a time share commercial. We were the only visitors there on a Friday night, with the exception of my mother-in-law’s husband Darryl.

It was quiet there. The employees talked about when they were going to take their cigarette breaks. Curious elderly people wandered over to Martha’s room to see the excitement of visitors on a Friday night.

Martha was in her bed hooked up to oxygen. She looked good. Darryl said that his mother was in the nursing home now because she can no longer take care of herself. The conversation got too close to the truth of Martha’s situation. We talked of funerals that we attended together of other family members and Darryl’s moms declining health.

Martha wondered why she was in the nursing home like her husband’s mother. She told us that she was going home soon. She said that they were going to start her on Chemo all over again. She was so convinced of this that I almost believed her. I wanted to.

Martha told us how great Darryl has been to her all of these years. She said that her only regret was that she didn’t meet Darryl sooner. She wished she could have given Paul a father when he was a child. Martha held Darryl’s hand and told him how much she loved and appreciated having him in her life.

When it was time to go, Angel sang a prayer. It was very peaceful and calming. There weren’t any tears or sad good byes like I was expecting.

Our visit ended on a good note..

Over the river and through the woods

  

Yesterday morning I awoke with a feeling of trepidation. I think I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect..

I drove over the river (or I should say over the railroad tracks, I’ve never seen so many tracks crossing the highway anywhere else) and through the deep dark woods of WI to take the kids to see grandma (my mother-in-law Martha). She didn’t make it over for Thanksgivng. In fact, she has gotten to the point where she is no longer eating much more than applesauce. 

For years, my son Alex and my husband Paul joined Paul’s stepdad Darryl to hunt. For the last couple of years, Martha would come to my house and spend the weekend playing cards, working puzzles, and watching movies. But she is too sick to go anywhere now. She has stage 4 terminal cancer. The chemo stopped working and the cancer has spread. The guys have been visiting her the last couple of weekends, but I haven’t had the chance to visit for awhile. I felt that it was important to take Angel out to see her while she was home from college for a few days. Will it be the last time?

I was afraid. Afraid of what I would find. Paul has been coming home upset from his time spent there. He didn’t know why. Then after awhile, he said that it was horrible seeing his mother die.

So I was afraid. My stomach felt upset. Would she be in great pain? Would she forget my name like the last time I visited. It’s hard to see someone who was once so vibrant and full of life fade away. She lost over 50 lbs and is just skin and bones. Her hair is starting to grow back in a brown patch of fuzz, so different from her black curly long hair she once had. Her gait is slow, she aged 20 years in a year. 

She was happy to see us. 

I was able to sneak away for awhile to see the deer stands. In all these years, I have never seen where they hunt.  In all those years, they only got one buck. To think just this last week we awoke to find a deer delivered to the end of our driveway, but the meat was not salvageable.  
Regardless, if they don’t bring back a buck, every year they bring back a Christmas tree. 

I had to show you a picture of Alex and Paul at Alex’s tree stand. 

Our visit with Martha went better than the girls and I expected. Martha is such an unrealistic optimist that I think she makes herself feel better. She kept talking about the day that she will get better and be able to come over to visit. That day will never come, but maybe it is better that she believes it.  It was nice to see her so upbeat and not have to see her suffer. The thought of watching a loved one suffer is unbearable.

Thanksgiving break is officially over now. Today I dropped Angel off to catch her carpool for the 4 hour drive back to school. It was strange to see her go back again with her suitcase full. I don’t always like my new reality, but I have learned to accept it. If only I could stop time for just a few seconds…

I dropped Angel off and came home to a glorious blue Christmas tree. I am excited for the beginning of the next holiday season. A time of hope and light. A time of such intense busyness that I forget all of my troubles.. 

I am going to decorate my tree tonight..

Back to the present

Today I struggled with what to write. I want to go back to my autism series that I started earlier this month but so much is happening in my life right now. How can I talk about the past when the present is exciting, here, and almost gone?? I will finish it though. With the marathon last weekend and my first child’s graduation this weekend, I have a thousand thoughts and emotions running through my head. And it all has to fit into one post per day that should contain an average of 500 words. Lol.

Last night, Paul and I decided to call our parents to try to convince them into going to Angel’s graduation. I called my dad and asked him directly if he was going. Now I typically call my dad twice a year, on his birthday and on Father’s Day. So it was a big deal that I was calling him. He seemed happy to hear from me. He told me that Angel was a nice and good girl. He said that he was planning on going to her graduation. I was floored. Then he even asked me how my marathon went. I was shocked that the whole conversation was very positive.

Then I walked out of my bedroom to find that things didn’t go quite as well with Paul and his mom. Martha was on the phone with Angel saying that she wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to make it. But this time she is really sick. So sick that she couldn’t make it in to her chemo appointment yesterday. I believe that she is really sick this time. But I liken it to the story of the boy that called wolf. Martha has been calling wolf so many times over the past several years that now my mind finds it had to believe that there is a wolf.

But there is a wolf. Martha has terminal cancer, the big devouring wolf. A few weeks ago, Martha was going to go with me to see Angel perform her solo and ensemble pieces at state. Martha was supposed to be at my house by nine. I waited around until 11:00, Martha didn’t show up or call. By that time I had already missed half of Angel’s performances. At 11, Paul called his mom and she was still at home an hour away from our house. She wasn’t feeling good enough to go but didn’t bother to call. She was going to try to make it out to eat with us later that evening for Mother’s Day.

I knew that Martha was sick. But it still brought up all of those old feelings that I had towards her for standing up my kids. I was very angry and hurt. I drove fast to get to the remainder of Angel’s events. I was pissed that I wasn’t there to support Angel when I told her I would be there to watch her. Then I even started to feel a little guilty that I was angry with my mother-in-law who is dying. So I have become tolerant. I have repressed the years of resentment, hurt, and anger.

It is hard because now I think that Martha might want to go to Angel’s graduation. But it is too late now. She should have gone to more things when she was able to. She should have been the involved grandparent then. Now it is much too late.

 

Our last supper

Paul and I decided to take his mother Martha out to eat for one last Mother’s Day celebration where we can all be together.

A quick recap…Martha has stage 4 lung cancer that has already spread to her brain. This will most likely be her last Mother’s Day. Plus we were able to go out with all of our kids. This will also be the last time the kids are all living at home since Angel will be in college next year several hours away. So this was the big hurrah!

We took the family out to a Japanese steak house for hibachi. Martha doesn’t get to enjoy fine dining often and was very happy for the opportunity to go out. She was very sick earlier in the day from her chemo, so we weren’t even sure the evening out would happen. We thought about just cooking a nice meal at our house. But since this is the last time, we decided to go to a small quiet restaurant and make it memorable.

We had a wonderful hibachi chef. Arabella even tried some raw tuna sushi to get ready for her trip to Japan this fall. She is very brave. Martha was wearing a baseball cap to cover her bald head. Paul made sure that she received a special chef hat that they reserve for birthday parties. I took a lot of pictures.

When we received the bill, we were told that Martha’s supper was paid for. Someone at the table next to ours covered her bill.

Paul went over to the table and thanked the man. They embraced. Later the man followed Paul into the parking lot. He told Paul that his mother passed away a few months ago from cancer. He wanted Paul to pass on this generosity someday to another person going through the same thing.

Once again, the two grown men embraced. Total strangers sharing a moment of sorrow over their dead and dying mothers on Mother’s Day weekend.

Together they wept in each others arms.

I have never seen two big masculine men sobbing together in a parking lot before. Complete strangers for a brief moment sharing the same pain.

It was very moving.

 

The wait, the news

Last night we received the news of my mother-in-law’s biopsy. I feel relief that it turned out the way that it did. We have been anxiously waiting for the past two weeks, putting everything on hold. Waiting to get that punch in the face that never happened. Worry that had me in a pre-ulcerative state. Worry that had me grinding my teeth during the night. Worry that tightened every muscle bracing for the punch.

Telephone calls spewed misinformation like the game telephone. News of a football sized mass in the stomach and lungs turned out to be two small football shaped masses in the stomach and chest. Small slow growing malignant tumors that will be treated with oral chemotherapy. Chemo is not going to be a walk in the park, nor is she out of the woods by any means. But, the prognosis is good. So much better than what we originally thought.

When we heard the bad news 2 weeks ago, we turned to google. Google is the hypochondriacs best friend. Website after website fueling our anxieties into one big ball of flames of death and dying. We literally thought that she might only have a few months, weeks, maybe a few days left. I really hate it when I let myself be worried by google. Every scrape, bruise, and cut has at least one website devoted to the belief that we are going to die from it.

Seriously, lets face it, we are all going to die. If anything, this has been a wake up call to not believe everything that you read online AND to treat everyday like it could be the last day.