Guest Blog: Cancer & Communication Break Down
I was 24 years old when she was diagnosed and living about 1000 miles away. All I knew was what she and my Dad would tell me: that she had breast cancer. I did not know the extent of how seriously ill she was. I had no ideas she was Stage 4. I had no idea her doctors told her to go home, get her affairs in order and spend time with her family. I found out these things close to 13 years later, after my Mom had written a book about her journey with breast cancer.
I was surprised to learn how dismal her prognosis was. I also was a bit peeved that I found out how dismal it was by reading the manuscript to her book about a year before she published it. I remember thinking ‘why didn’t I know that?’ and ‘why didn’t they tell me?’ but then I remembered who I was dealing with.
Throughout her entire illness, my parents did their very best to protect my Sister and me from the disease. I don’t know if it was a reflexive parental instinct or what, but oftentimes I remember feeling that I wasn’t getting the whole story. What they shared with us was edited; of course they shared the good whenever my Mom received good test results. But when the news was not so good, I didn’t always get the full story. This was incredibly frustrating to me, and I told them so. Still, they felt the need to shield us from some of the reality, despite the fact that my sister and I were not little children anymore. We were both adults.
Sure, we knew my Mom was sick. And the truth is, she was pretty sick. Despite a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in 1995, the cancer came back seven years later and she lived with it for the rest of her life. It spread to her intestines and stomach, and I think we all knew there was only so much chemo her body would tolerate before it would stop working.
Even so, my Mom always had a ‘mind over matter’ attitude; in fact, after that first diagnosis, she never wanted to hear her prognosis again. She didn’t want to be a statistic. She wanted to live. And maybe it was because of her attitude that I didn’t push her or my Dad to share with me the good and the nitty-gritty details of the bad. Maybe, deep down, I knew that my Mom could only handle sharing what she felt comfortable sharing; if she shared too much, maybe she thought we would look at her outlook in a negative way and that would bring her down. I don’t know.
But despite all that she was going through and managing with chemo the cancer that was attacking her body, my Mom lived quite well. She and my Dad traveled. She took up new hobbies and became incredibly active in the local Komen chapter. She made new friends and spent quality time with her family. And when she (finally) became a grandmother, she doted on her only grandson as much as she could.
Thinking back on it now, my attitude about her illness during that time, for the most part, was that her health was ‘stable’. In fact, for most of the time, my Mom’s cancer was in the recesses of mind and only occasionally on my mind.
And then in September, 2007 she broke her hip and everything went downhill. The break was a result of her cancer; she didn’t fall or anything. As a result, she went off of chemo, and the cancer spread even more. For the first time, I saw first-hand how bad things really were. And I was scared. All those thoughts I had 13 years ago of my Mom dying raced to the forefront of my mind. She looked bad. She felt bad. And the familiar fight that I saw in her had disappeared. Was this really going to be it?
Still, we didn’t talk about what was impending. Rather, we simply spent a lot of time together. I helped my Dad with the care-giving (as much as he would let me help). I visited her. I brought her grandchildren over. I talked and she slept. I remember feeling guilty wondering if she was really going to die. I mean, how could that be? She fought so hard for so long, I think we all just assumed that she would keep fighting until old age took her.
But did we really think that? I don’t think so.
We were all with her – my Sister, my Dad and myself – when she took her last breath on January 9. 2008. She had been in bed for about 2 months after a hip replacement and rehab, and I think during that time, she decided she had fought a good fight but it was time to lay down the sword. My Mom did not like to be waited on, but rather she liked to be in control. Now she wasn’t. Hospice was set up just 9 days prior to her death, and although the doctors gave her 4-6 months, I knew it would be a matter of time. In fact, the night before she died she told my Dad that she was ready to go, a fact that he told me the day of her funeral.
I miss my Mom terribly. She was my best friend, and the void she left in my life and my heart was – and still is – huge. Still, I have no regrets on how she and my Dad handled her disease. Everything she did in her battle she did her way, including how much information she divulged to my Sister and me. I didn’t always agree with how they handled it, but that’s OK. She and my Dad did it their way, and that’s what’s important.
Daughter of Jan Zimmerman, Author
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