A Very Different Awareness Month

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October is breast cancer awareness month. I struggled with whether or not I would write about cancer. It’s played a pivotal part in the events that have shaped my life, but breast cancer specifically has played one of the largest roles in shaping my life in the last decade. For seven Octobers, the month represented hope and strength. It was a reminder that it’s possible to overcome even the biggest obstacle. The last three Octobers, however, have been times of mourning and reminders that life is fragile and precious and that the people you love will not always be with you.

My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in June 2009. Things were really, really grim. The cancer had spread to her lungs, spine, and skull. There were doctors who told us she would not make it long and that our best hope was to keep her comfortable. It’s devastating to hear that someone you love is dying. The hardest thing you will ever do is to put on a brave face for them to keep them calm and encouraged, but that’s what I did. For me, it was even more important because my mom was looking to me for her strength; she was looking to me to be her rock and to get her though the cancer, and no matter what it took, that is exactly what I was going to do.

The first glimmer of hope was when we met my mom’s oncologist. Despite all of the information the other doctors gave us, this amazing, heavensent man simply looked at my mom’s chart and then looked at her and said, “No problem. We got this!” He then proceeded to explain her treatment plan. He was very honest that my mom’s cancer would never be in remission but that it would be weakened by the chemo plan he outlined and then maintained with hormones. He was so sure and so positive. My mom started her treatment, and we held onto that hope her oncologist gave us.

By October, things were pretty rough. My mom struggled with the chemo, so she was frail and weak. Her lungs were constantly filling with fluid making it impossible for her to breath despite her use of oxygen, so her pulmonologist put catheters in her lungs that would allow me to drain them daily. I was giving my mom blood thinner shots daily to prevent clots due to the location of her cancer mass. I was dressing bed sores and performing other nursing duties as needed. Things were so rough that we honestly didn’t know if my mom was going to be alive for Christmas. Nonetheless, it was breast cancer awareness month, and she was still with us four months after we were told that was unlikely. Things were hard, but she was still fighting, and so was I.

Fast forward to the next October and the next October, and my mom had done the unimaginable. Not only was she still with us, but she was doing amazingly well. It was hard to believe the difference. For the next several years, my mom lived a quality life. She was living her life the same way she did before that day in 2009. Each October, I was reminded of just how lucky I was was. The pink ribbons everywhere represented the victory my mom won. They remind me not to take any of it for granted, and I didn’t.

My mom continued to do well until 2014. Severe back pain would lead us to discover that one of the cancerous spots on her spine caused a fracture. It was back to chemo, but it was OK because she had been through this before, and I believed she could get through it again. Enter another October, and mom was still with us and still fighting. Enter another October, and those pink ribbons represented another round of hope.

By 2015, chemo stopped because my mom lost too much weight. She started steroids to try to increase her appetite, but they weren’t helping. My mom hadn’t driven since her fracture in 2014, so she had lost some independence. I was at her house at least three days a week dressing bed sores, giving shots, and just ensuring she was staying positive.  This lasted through another fall and another October. The pink ribbons still represented hope. They still represented strength. I still had faith that everything would be OK.

At a routine appointment to review my mom’s scans in early 2016, the expression on her oncologist’s face changed. It wasn’t the “We got this” expression from before. It was a serious look I hadn’t seen on his face before. As he rubbed his head in an obviously stressed manner, he looked at my mom and said, “Oh, Nancy, what are we going to do with you?” Her cancer had spread to her stomach, which was most likely why her appetite wasn’t improving. He ordered more chemo, which I knew my mom would never make it through. My heart sank for the very first time in almost seven years. The reality set in, and I wasn’t ready for it. 

The next few months all run together. My mom deteriorated quickly. We were back at the ER for breathing issues because my mom was retaining so much fluid. The ER doctor, with a look of sympathy on his face, looked at us and said that we needed to start asking my mom’s doctors the hard questions. Within a week, I did. I had to make a call to my mom’s oncologist to ask if it was time for hospice. He was the only other person in the world who had never given up on my mom, and he was on the other end of the line saying it was time to let go. It was the hardest phone call I ever had to make. It was the phone call that confirmed there was no hope. There was no more “We got this.” I was going to watch my mom die, and there was nothing I could do about it.

We lost my mom April 24, 2016. It was the worst day of my life. October now is a very different month. The last three Octobers have been times of mourning. Those pink ribbons ribbons don’t represent hope to me anymore. They represent loss. When I see those ribbons, I am reminded of what cancer took from me. Selfish? Yes, but I have earned that right. I see that ribbon and remember that I can’t pick up the phone and call my mom. I see that ribbon and remember that when I go to her house, she won’t be there. I see that ribbon, and I remember that my son has no grandmother. I see that ribbon and remember that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t save my mom.

These feelings will never go away or change. It’s the reality of grief. When I use a pink ribbon in October, I am remembering my mom. I’m grieving; I’m hurting. I don’t expect people to understand. If you have never lost someone you loved, you can’t. There is a quote that states grief is that last expression of love we can give someone. Where there is great grief, there was once great love. That is certainly true for me. A month of hope filled with a pink symbol of strength will forever more be a month of sadness and a reminder that the people you love are precious, and you should cherish every minute with them. When the people you love are gone, all you have left is grief.