Personal cancer story
In May 2010, I was 24 and in my final semester of university, when my mum started to experience back pain.
The back pain wasn't of huge concern as she was 61 and often getting treatments from physiotherapists and acupuncturists for pain in her knees and ankles. The pain however, got worse and within a few weeks she was seeing a physiotherapist every few days. The pain rapidly got so bad that she couldn't walk without help, work or drive, and she spent as much time as possible in bed.
At this stage, she also begun to lose focus and concentration easily, and when I pointed this out, she said it was because of the strong pain-killers. Since the physio treatments didn't seem to be helping, she made an appointment with her GP. He did an x-ray of her back and said that he believed it was cancer, that she would not recover from it and that she needed to see an oncologist immediately.
I remember being in the kitchen when her partner told me. I walked out of the room when he was mid-sentence, walked down the hall to her bedroom, crawled into bed with her and started crying. We made an appointment for her at Royal North Shore Hospital for two days later and she was admitted on the spot. They said it was breast cancer that had metastasised into her spine and collapsed two vertebrae. It had also spread to her liver and kidneys which was causing her lack of focus and concentration.
In 2007, through a routine mammogram, doctors had found pre-cancer cells in one of her breasts and she underwent two surgeries in order to remove lymph nodes and potentially cancerous tissue and cells. She’d had regular checks since, which had shown no signs of growth. Her oncologists at the hospital said that the cancer had never left but stayed dormant in her body and had finally come back extremely aggressively.
My parents were divorced and I am an only child, so I was suddenly put in charge of some serious decisions which, up until that point, was not something I ever thought I would be doing at 24. Initially, I was told that they believed chemotherapy would be successful. However, in hindsight, it occurs to me that they could have meant successful in treating the cancer, or successful in simply giving her more time. My mum had one round of chemotherapy and, after an initial improvement, she began to deteriorate quickly and died 13 days after she was admitted.
In 2009, a year before my mum's death, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, most likely because of his heavy smoking in his 20s and 30s. He had surgery to remove the cancerous lung and was given one round of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Although the chemotherapy was incredibly difficult to get through, the scans afterward showed no signs of cancer, and for the next few years he lived cancer free.
In early 2011, doctors found a brain tumour that had metastasised from his lung but was not aggressive. The only symptoms at the time were headaches. He was given another round of radiation and, in a strange coincidence, was placed in the same room at the hospital that my mum had spent her last weeks in.
Shortly after his new diagnosis, my dad began to lose the mobility of his left leg and arm and began physiotherapy in order to gain some mobility back. He was getting regular treatments at a small hospital that specialised in cancer physiotherapy and palliative care. While there, the doctors informed him that they believed his cancer was more aggressive than initially thought, and that he had between three and 12 months left to live. The tumour in his brain had grown and the cancer had metastasised in other areas of his body, which meant he was deteriorating quickly.
The doctors, my dad and I decided a final trip to see his family in the United States was a positive step to concentrate on, and a chance to spend Christmas with his family before he deteriorated too much and couldn't travel. Unfortunately this happened much more rapidly than anyone expected and he died four weeks later.
I wasn't expecting the grief and its infectious ripples to last this long and for it to be such a fight."
My mum's illness was so sudden and rapid that I was in a state of shock through the entire time she was in hospital, and for some time after that. There is never enough time to be able to say and do everything you want, especially not in two weeks.
However, in a lot of ways I am grateful that it was such a short time. It meant she suffered less and that awful period in our lives was not unnecessarily and painfully drawn out. Her communication was so limited by the time she was admitted to hospital, the doctors and I agreed not to tell her she was dying. On some level she may have known, but by not telling her, I was able to give her the last few weeks of her life without the unquestionable pain and sadness that would have inevitably clouded that time had she known.
Unfortunately, things were very different for my dad, as he was painfully aware of what was happening, and so was I. With mum, it was a whirlwind that was over as quickly as it had begun, but with dad we had more time. Time to think, to dwell and to be sad.
In many ways my parents' illnesses were similar: an earlier diagnosis, a period of recovery and then a rapid decline. But their deaths were starkly different. My mum, a warm, social and caring person, was surrounded by people day and night for the last weeks of her life. Friends and colleagues came from interstate to say goodbye and the wonderful staff were kind enough to put up with our laughter far beyond the normal visiting hours. My dad was quiet and introspective, with a handful of life-long, close friends. They visited often, but mostly it was just dad and me.
Not surprisingly, losing my parents has been the hardest thing I have ever had to go through, and hopefully will ever go through. The obvious sadness is there and I miss their presence in my life in a profound and almost physical way. But I wasn't prepared to miss having ‘parents’ – someone that you can scream at and know that they're going to forgive you, or someone that you can call in the middle of the night because you're sad, or you've had a fight with a friend, or you're sick and you need a hug. When dad died, I wanted mum to cry with but I didn't have her.
I wasn't expecting the grief and its infectious ripples to last this long and for it to be such a fight. I wasn't prepared for the resentment I sometimes feel towards people who still have parents. And I wasn't prepared for the feeling of isolation that comes from people simply not understanding what it's like, the guilt you feel when you think you should be over it by now, and the sadness you feel when you know you'll never quite get over it. This is the main reason why I felt compelled to share what happened in my family, so that it becomes a small drop in a greater community of people that need or provide support.
A lot of good has come out of my parent's deaths, and while I'm obviously not thankful that they're gone, I am grateful for the positives that came out of such intense negatives. I am grateful for the opportunity to do things that I think will make my parents proud. Whether they're big, like participating in cancer fundraising events, or small, like reading a book I know they'd like. I'm lucky to have the parents that I had and proud that I can see a lot of them in me. They weren't perfect and losing them doesn't erase their faults, but if I can continue their humble legacies in some way, then I feel like they're quietly immortalised in my life and maybe others'.
My mum was an intensely warm and comforting person that befriended first, and asked questions later. She lost her brother at a young age, but surrounded herself with immensely close friends who became the family she chose for herself. My dad was a man of few words and would be just as happy to surround himself with the characters in books as the characters in his life. He worked hard at jobs he didn't love so that he could give me a better childhood than he had, something I now appreciate far and beyond, having experienced jobs that leave you unfulfilled.
I'm so proud to be a part of a group of amazingly strong people who have experienced cancer in some way. Anyone who is fighting it, or has fought it, or known someone who is fighting or fought it, comes out the other side a changed person. It's a group no one wants to be in, but to be part of it is an immeasurable honour … I hope that by being part of such a special community, this helps in some way in getting people the support they need.
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