Sunday, February 21, 2010

A mother and cancer - Part 2: "Cancer's Gift"

My parent's gravesite - a black marble bench for us kids to sit on when we come and visit. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The decision to go ahead with cancer treatments was probably tougher and more painful for my mother than the treatments themselves. After all, by going through with it, she was going back on her word. She always vowed she would “eat a gun” before she would put herself through that hell. But there she was, last week at the Cleveland Clinic, being fit for a modern-day, but really more medieval, stabilization mask to help keep her perfectly still while the doctors radiate the tumor in her throat - five times a week, 38 times in all.

Of course, the 24-hour-a-day chemo drip she’ll have to endure the first five days won’t be a picnic either.  Everywhere my mother goes that first week in the hospital, she’ll have an IV pole as a dance partner, slowly poisoning her body one drip at a time until every rapidly dividing cell in her body, good or bad, is painfully extinguished. Despite all that, she knows the first week will be her best - the radiation won’t start to really do its damage until much later, and the chemo most likely won’t have her begging for mercy until the middle of the second week.

That first week she’ll still have her hair, she’ll still have an appetite, and she’ll still have her teeth. Later in the treatments, the chemo will claim her hair and her desire to eat, and the radiation probably will cost her some teeth. If her throat swells too much from the treatments she also may need a tracheotomy and a feeding tube - that’s if she’s lucky enough not to die before any of the side effects kick in.

So, why do it? Certainly none of us kids, or my father, wants to see her suffer, but we don’t want her to die either. In the end, it didn’t really matter what we thought, this was her decision, and hers alone. What probably tipped the scale was knowing that if she did nothing, she wasn’t going to die peacefully in her sleep six months down the road. She knew, and the doctor’s affirmed, that by doing nothing, her last six months would be a slow and painful trip to her demise until she either choked to death on her tongue or died from starvation.

Whatever route my mother took one thing was for sure - it was going to suck. So, in a world of suck, she decided to take a route that at least gave her a chance for survival, knowing, of course, that even if she does survive, the cancer someday will return and kill her.

But cancer, with all its power to take away life one malignant cell at a time, also gave me a gift. After 10 years of watching my mother battle this horrific disease, as well as seeing my aunt, my best friend, and countless others perish at its doorstep, I can honestly say it no longer strikes fear into my soul. I’ve become numb to the word “cancer.” It carries no meaning for me anymore. At this point it’s nothing more than my zodiac sign. Cancer takes away so much that it’s hard to see any good it can do. But this squamous cell carcinoma, the same cancer that will eventually kill my mother, also gave me something in return.

It’s given me a decade of not taking anything for granted, of treating each day with my mother still on this planet as a true gift. It lets me fully enjoy our phone conversations and it helps me relive my wonderful childhood every time I return home for a visit. We all knew the day would come – it will come for us all – but my mom’s cancer has shortened her time line and made everyone in our family soak in each moment more fully and with a much greater perspective.

As gruesome as it may sound, cancer has given us the chance to prepare for the moment, even my parents, who recently bought a plot in our hometown cemetery  - a beautiful black marble bench with all our names engraved in the stone. My mom wanted us to be comfortable if, and when, we ever came to see her grave -so much so, she gave us a place to sit.

Cancer also has given us a chance to do things with my mom we might not have done otherwise. My sister took my mom to Italy a few years ago to fulfill one of her lifelong dreams. My brothers make it a point to come by the house as much as possible, and my wife and I did what little we could do by giving my mother three grandchildren she could teach to swear and pass on a lifetime of dirty jokes.

In the next six weeks I’ll be making frequent trips to Ohio to help out my mother as much as possible. In that time, I’ll see her health steadily decline as she fights to keep up her strength, and even though I’m not overly religious (spiritual for sure, but not overly religious) I will pray.

I will pray for a lot of things, but mostly I'll pray my mom will stay strong and keep up the fight, because as nice as it is, neither I, nor my siblings, nor my father, want to sit on that bench at Riverside Cemetery any time too soon.

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