Mom now enters the late stages of her 13-year battle with breast cancer. She has fought a good fight; she has kept the faith. She has every reason to be proud of the race she’s run.
I’ve long been conflicted on whether to publicly discuss this topic on my blog or on social networks. Several things held me back. I was sensitive to her privacy. I questioned my ability to adequately portray her situation. I resisted the soul-searching I thought might lead me to the right words. And I didn’t want to vent.
I’ve now come to a place where I can write about it both honestly and respectfully, and with her permission. Furthermore, I’ve realized that I need to. Unless I give this subject some of the space it deserves, I can’t pretend that any of the other topics here really matter. Besides, this experience continues to shape my views on so many things I might write about: family, society, politics, religion, health care, aging, and death, to name but a few.
So I’ll open the discussion with a summary of Mom’s story and her current situation. In future posts I’ll get into more detail, while still respecting the privacy of those involved.
Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, at the age of 51. Although the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, the doctors were hopeful and the prognosis was good. After a difficult surgery, followed by months of intensive radiation treatments and intravenous chemotherapy, she recovered and went into remission. Three years ago, almost exactly 10 years after her original diagnosis, she learned that the cancer had metastasized to her bones. This time, the diagnosis was terminal.
Still, her oncologist said she would have “years, not months.” The goal of treatments this time was to slow the progression of the disease, while affording her as much quality time as possible.
One of the ways they detect the presence of breast cancer in the body is through the CA 27-29 tumor marker. Graphed over the last three years, Mom’s 27-29 marker spikes, then falls, then spikes again with the introduction of each new treatment and the cancer’s eventual resistance to it. The hills and valleys of this 3-year graph trend up and to the right.
With each decrease in the tumor marker, as her medicine helped her to fight the cancer, she had weeks to months of feeling relatively good. Then, as the cancer cells became resistant to the medicine and began to spread again, she felt terrible. The doctors then introduced a new treatment, and the cycle repeated. Gradually throughout the process, her bones became weak and brittle, her need for narcotic pain medicines increased, and she lost a tremendous amount of weight.
Under her oncologist’s guidance, there has been a series of helpful medicines. But we’ve now come to the point that the only remaining options involve harsh forms of intravenous chemotherapy. Given her weakened state, the doctors aren’t enthusiastic about that approach. More importantly, Mom has gone through IV chemo before, and she’s choosing not to go through it again.
Our discussions now turn to hospice care.
Before I close this introduction, I’m sure Mom would want me to convey some of the richness of the journey we’re all taking.
Of course it’s been difficult for her, and for all of us. In addition to the physical symptoms, the anxiety, and the excruciating pain, she’s dealt with the emotional struggles of letting go—of people, of her mobility, of her privacy, of independence, of control. And she lost her own mother last year to Alzheimer’s disease.
However, if you talked with Mom, she would be more inclined to share the positive side of what she’s been through. She’s had time to examine her life, to make peace with all that has gone before, and to be with those she loves. She has a strong faith, a close and supportive family, and an incredible network of friends. She’s faced this battle with dignity and grace, and her attitude has been an inspiration to me personally, along with many who know her. I, too, have been grateful for the time.
She would also want me to express her profound sense of confidence and hope. Her primary oncologist has been on the cutting edge of research. There’s been so much progress made, even in the years since Mom’s original diagnosis. There are passionate and dedicated professionals leading the charge who won’t give up until a cure is found. And in her part of this race, Mom would insist that she’s merely passing the baton.
To reduce the last 13 years to such a brief summary is challenging at best. I’m aware of so much left unsaid, and so much more that I want to say. Of memories. Of lessons. Of love and laughter. Of how much I’ll truly miss her. That would take hours and hours, I know. I must make a start, and leave it at this for now.