Tuesday night, my
teammates girlfriends and I attended the Susan G. Komen 3 Day Get started meeting. I think we all walked away moved and energized by our mission to make a difference in the fight against breast cancer. Committed to waging war against this enemy! I also walked away, having heard the very personal stories of women battling for their life and those that lost. One particular story so closely mirrored my mom’s that I almost lost my breath. As I listened to the story of this mom’s struggle I was moved to tell my own mom’s story.
A warning to close friends and family — this may be tough to read. It was torture to write.
This story does not have a happy ending.
In early 2001 as I was getting ready to complete my final year of College I got a call from my mom. I don’t remember the words she said. I only heard breast cancer. I can still feel the lump in my stomach. I can still feel the panic rising. I know she comforted me — because that’s what mom’s do — they make you believe that everything is going to be alright even when they face fear and uncertainty. They give you what strength and courage they have to carry you forward. My mom was 47.
The doctors moved quickly scheduling a lumpectomy. The date was set. It happened to be smack dab in the middle of my spring break. A trip planned with my new boyfriend (now husband) to Disney World. I wanted to cancel. She insisted I go. A mom — encouraging me to move forward with my life even when she is facing a threat to hers.
I went on the trip. Matt will tell you I was a mess. Anxiety and nerves and guilt and fear. I couldn’t have been very fun to be around. I can still tell you exactly where I was standing when my mom got out of surgery. My cell phone (it was a rather large contraption in 2001) rang while I was standing at the stairs leading up into the overhang for Big Thunder Mountain. Reception was bad — we let the line pass us by so I could talk to my dad. The news — mom was out of surgery. It went well. Looks like they got it all.
Chemo, radiation and years of hormone therapy followed. Her hair thinned. She went into early menopause. She hated how tired she was, how sick the treatments made her. But she looked that big ugly beast cancer square in the eye and she beat it. She repeated “I think I can.” She told the cancer she hated it. She told the cancer she was stronger than it — strong like bull. She told the cancer she had more to do. She told the cancer she was in control of her life! Through it all she was brave, she was strong, she remained the center of our family. She remained the unwavering friend. She became my hero!
In 2006 she celebrated her 5 year survival date. I began to breathe easier. Not worried that cancer would jump out from its hiding spot. She hated her yearly mammogram. I think she skipped a few — the fear of the other shoe dropping would get the better of her. But year after year, they would come back clear.
In 2009 my mom fell ill shortly after the New Year with what appeared to be a nasty flu. It knocked her down for weeks. After numerous visits to the Dr. and finally an admission to the hospital she was getting a full work up. Her liver enzymes were out of whack which led to an ultrasound and a diagnosis of severe cirrhosis of the liver. More tests and a biopsy. A call from my mom telling me it was cancer. Metastatic disease. Her breast cancer had metastasized to her liver. I fell apart. She put me back together. A mom!
The oncologist was optimistic. Gave her and me hope. Talked about a long life. Multiple rounds of chemo and tests followed. I made appointments with John’s Hopkins and Sloan Kettering. Appointments my mom would never make. Less than three months later my mom was admitted to the hospital. Unresponsive. Her liver was failing. We were aggressive with her meds which brought her back to us for a few short days. Days my family and I lived in the hospital breaking every hospital protocol. Days where her friends and family put life aside to spend with her. I let her share my news with everyone — I was 8 weeks pregnant.
During those days we protected her. It was my decision. I didn’t want her to be scared. I didn’t want her to know that she was losing her battle. I wanted those days to be filled with love and laughter. For her last days to be as full as possible. Maybe I was wrong to do this. I still question this decision. Maybe I should have let people be honest with her. Let her say goodbye. Let her leave on her terms. I couldn’t! I wouldn’t! Deep down I believe she knew — I took weeks off of work, her family flew in from all over the country. This wasn’t normal. But it was my turn. My mom always protected me. Comforted me. Calmed my fears. In her last days I knew I had to do this for her.
Her liver Dr. scolded me. He wanted me to let her go peacefully, stop medical interventions. Stop her drugs. It was too late he said. I wasn’t ready to give up. She wasn’t either. We’re fighters — strong like bull!
We tried one more round of chemo. Hoping it would start reversing the tumors that had taken over her liver. We planned a Derby day party with hats and virgin mint juleps. We never had the party. The chemo was too much. Her liver was too weak. She slipped back into unconsciousness. It would be her last round.
The night before she died I laid in bed with my mom. Holding her too me and told her that we would be OK. That I would be OK. I told her if she wanted to she could let go. She didn’t have to fight anymore.
On May 5, 2009 my mom lost her battle to breast cancer. She was surrounded by family who held her hands while she took her last breath. Who told her it was OK to go while her heart beat for minutes after. The nurse told us she had a strong heart — of course she did!
My mom may have lost her battle but the war isn’t over. Her fight mattered. Her story matters. I walk because I can. I walk because she can’t. I walk to win her war.