My mom knowingly lived with cancer for 12 days. Lived. Not battled because there wasn’t a battle to be had. Cancer had already won. It normally does with lung cancer. Per the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States. It causes more deaths per year than the next three most common cancers combined (colon, breast, and pancreatic). The explanation is simple: There are no preventive tests for the lung cancer. Typically, the first symptoms are difficulty breathing for extended periods of time or even coughing up blood. By then, it’s often too late.
By the time my mom was diagnosed, the cancer had spread throughout her body from her lungs to her liver, heart, skin, brain, muscles, lymph nodes, and adrenal glands just to name a few, well, more than a few. You get the idea and to be honest, the doctors didn’t even reveal the full extent. Doing so would have been unnecessary and a lot like pouring fuel on a fire. We knew it was bad. We knew it was not survivable. We didn’t need to be throttled with body part after body part that was infected.
I remember when I received the results of my mom’s MRI. Peter and I were in Vienna. The report was five pages long and I couldn’t read more than a few words before having to revert to dictionary.com or Google to understand the jargon. Below is a portion of the first paragraph of her MRI report – it pertains to 10 tumors in her brain. Reading it is as overwhelming as it was when I first read it and when I read it for the fifteenth time and when I read it for the thirtieth time.
There are multiple intracranial metastases, some of which show evidence of hemorrhage. The largest lesion is a ring enhancing lesion in the inferior right cerebellar hemisphere measuring 1.5 cm in diameter. The largest supratentorial lesion is in the mid left frontal lobe measuring 8 mm. There is an enhancing lesion in the posterior aspect of the pontomedullary junction measuring 6 mm. There are approximately 10 enhancing intracranial metastases. There is a small amount of vasogenic edema around some of the lesions, though these do not have significant mass effect.
The report goes on and on and on. I emailed it to my friend Katie who has worked in Oncology for over a decade. My first question was: If my mom has tumors throughout her body, how can they pinpoint where the cancer originated? How do they know it started in her lung? Katie explained to me in human terms that basically, the babies of the original tumor look completely different from the original tumor. It was a lightbulb moment to say the least.
I’ve mulled over how to approach and describe the last few years, months, and days of my mom’s life. Which details should be included and not included? Will this public information offend my family? Would my mom want me to write about this? This all happened so quickly, do I have all the dates and times and details right? Does it matter if I have them exactly right? At the end of the day, I’ve come back to the same conclusion which is that I deeply want to write about her and tell her story and there’s no other way to do that but in my own words and based on my feelings and my experience.
So, here goes…
60 years ago… my mom was born. My mom was just over 60 years old when she passed away. She was too young.
44 years ago… my mom started smoking cigarettes. She would remain addicted to nicotine for several decades.
41 years ago… my mom married by dad. The photo below was taken in the summer of 1979 (several years after their wedding). I was just a wee tot then.
36 years ago… I was born. My sister, Tessa, was born three years later and my brother, Ryan, was born approximately two years after Tessa.
7 years ago… my mom randomly and unexpectedly stopped smoking cigarettes. She went to the doctor and came home with Chantix, a prescription drug which aides in smoking cessation. Chantix was approved by the FDA in May 2006 and my mom was prescribed it about a year later – an early adopter, in my opinion. What we don’t – and will never – know is why she decided to quit smoking. Did she go to the doctor with the intent to obtain a Chantix prescription or was the Chantix prescription a result of a conversation with the doctor? No one knows and no one asked her because my mom’s nicotine addiction was an uncomfortable topic in our household. We wanted her to quit smoking. She didn’t. And at the end of the day, we were just happy that she quit smoking.
6 years ago… I started noticing weird things with my mom’s memory, thought process, and reasoning skills. It was also at this time that I began wondering if Chantix had something to do with the changes I was seeing in my mom.
At the time, there wasn’t much research on long-term side effects of Chantix but I believed (actually, believe) that any drug powerful enough to change a human brain and zap a decades-long nicotine addiction was bound to have long-term side effects. I still, to this day, conduct Google searches on Chantix and brain/personality changes, long-term effects, etc. Today, there are many, many, many forums and articles on Chantix and long-term effects people have experienced. Many of which describe some of the changes I saw in my mom. Chantix may have improved my mom’s life as it pertains to an awful and debilitating habit but I don’t know if it improved her quality of life. I saw depression, depression over weight gain, inability to sleep, exhaustion, and memory loss to name a few. I think I would think differently had her life not been cut so short – like if she would have lived 26 years after taking Chantix versus only seven-ish. Would the outcome of this tragic situation been different had she not quit smoking seven-ish years ago? I don’t know. I will never have the answer but I will always ask the question.
5 years ago… Peter and I got married in Cancun, Mexico. I remember looking through our wedding photos a couple of months before my mom passed away and thinking, “She looks so healthy in these photos. This was only five years ago. What is going on with her health? Is this just the aging process?” The human aging process is easier to see and recognize when you don’t see the person on a daily basis. I moved away from my parent’s state of residence, Minnesota, seven years ago and though I made regular, every-other-month, trips to Minnesota for the first two years (it was a time of my life where there were a lot of bachelorette parties, weddings, and bar crawls), each trip seemed to age the people I knew by years. Everyone was getting older. Maybe what I was seeing in my mom was her just getting older but I couldn’t help but notice my mom aging faster than my friends’ moms. Again, I don’t know.
My mom is wearing a brown dress in the photo below and I found it when I cleaned out her closet after she passed away. It was perfectly preserved, hanging in the back of the closet in a protective bag. She spent so much time finding a dark colored dress that wasn’t black and still went with our wedding colors. She nailed it, by the way.
4ish years ago… my parents started traveling around the US again. This was mainly forced upon them because my siblings and I ran out of Christmas ideas and started buying them hotel nights and flights to destinations we had overheard them talking about wanting to visit. I’m not sure they would have travelled if we hadn’t forced it upon them and I’m glad we did but I’m sad that we didn’t start doing it sooner. The monotony of life and daily routines often times has a way of keeping people within their comfort zone and, perhaps, a bit lazy. Life gets in the way of my life all the time. It takes a lot of time to pick destinations and plan out trips. It is so much easier to open a bottle of wine and sit on the couch watching The Geordie Shore and say, “Oh, I’ll do that tomorrow” and then tomorrow never comes.
Anyway, I don’t know exactly when my siblings and I sent my parents on their first trip but it was somewhere in the region of four or five years ago. They went to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Boston, Washington DC, and even visited Peter and I in England.
3 years ago… David, my parent’s first grandchild and my first nephew was born. David, and his brother, Ben, made/makes my mom and dad so happy.
1 year ago… My parent’s second grandchild and my second nephew, Ben, was born.