I don’t know why, but I woke up really emotional this Mother’s Day. At first I thought it was because I’m in full empath mode, feeling so deeply for some dear friends of mine that are doing this day without their Mum’s. It’s a gift and a flaw to be this way sometimes. I’ve made some amazing relationships because I feel everyone’s pain/love so deeply, but sometimes? I wish I could turn it off. The ENFJ’s (Myers Briggs personality type) will totally get this. But for the most part? It’s a gift, and I’m happy to be this way.
But after a few hours, I am starting to realise it’s not just that. It’s something a little deeper and closer to home. It’s about MY Mum. Yep, she is still with us, and truly the most beautiful woman I have ever met. But last year… was tough. And I think today, subconsciously, I am processing how close I was to losing her.
On March 26th 2017, the day after we had returned from Bali for my Birthday, my Mum called me. In her usual cheery ‘everything is OK’ voice, she told me that she had had a mammogram which had come back abnormal. While I was away, she had had some more tests and a biopsy, and she had a follow up appointment the next Thursday to find out more. She assured me it would be OK and she felt really good about it. But I knew. I don’t know if it was because I have been through the Cancer thing with Dad, or that I am incredibly in tune with my surroundings… But I knew. She had Cancer.
We walked into the dated BreastScreen Victoria building, and waited our turn to speak with a specialist. Mum’s name was called up, and we walked down the dark hallway and into a small room. At this point I just wanted to burst into tears. (Thinking “Am I seriously going through this AGAIN? How fucking unfair is life”). But… I gathered myself and tried to focus my thoughts on anything but how unfair this was for me. What about Mum sitting next to me? Ok, let’s focus on her. As the surgeon pulled up Mum’s mammogram and started talking about their findings, and pointing things out on the screen. She paused… “The biopsy has come back, and it IS Cancer.” While I sat up straight, and made no obvious signs of crying, the tears were streaming down my face. Mum just looked down and repeated “You’re kidding? I didn’t think that’s what you would be saying today”. I grabbed her hand, and said “I knew. But it’s OK… Because I also know you will be alright.” We sat their and tried to take in the rest of the information, but honestly? I didn’t retain a thing. It’s one of those moments, where your life changes in an instant. But then you go back to work and kids and life is kind of normal. But it’s not.
A week later, we were in the surgeon’s office again, ready to talk about a battle plan. Surgery would be the first task. We saw the surgeon on a Thursday, and Mum was booked in for surgery just 5 days later on the Tuesday. Still in shock, we just tried to focus on one thing at a time. When you hear the words ‘Cancer’ – You just go straight to worse case scenario. Even for the optimists like me, my first thought was “Fuck, I’m going to Parent-less” – A constant battle for Mum & I was to stay in each moment, and not think too far in advance. Mum was the worst. Stressing out about how much leave she would need to take off work and feeling like she was letting people down. Looking back, I guess that is part of shock. I think she was trying to control the only thing she could in a really uncontrollable situation. I would constantly have to bring her back to the next step at hand. So surgery happened, and a week later we had the follow up with her surgeon again. The surgeon told us she wasn’t 100% sure she got a clear enough margin around the affected site, and informed us that Mum would have to have a second surgery next week… Just to make sure. This pissed me off, but I didn’t tell anyone. I get it, surgeon’s aren’t perfect in their jobs, just as we aren’t. But it was my Mum… and I just felt so sorry for her. So the next week came, another surgery, another recovery, more pain killers.
With surgery/s complete. The next thing we had to do was meet her Oncologist. A dry man, who tells it how it is. But that is exactly what we needed at the time. Mum & I are both ridiculously emotional, so we needed emotionless (don’t mistake this for rude or cold). I remember this appointment like it was yesterday. I can handle the surgeries, but tell me about the Cancer. I need to know all the details, all the stats, I need diagrams and a step-by-step process on how we beat this thing. Poor Mum, we are completely different in that aspect. But she told me later on that she is so thankful I was there because she went blank when it came to asking questions, and she also wasn’t able to retain much information at all. We would go home and I would debrief with her. Book in her next appointments, blood tests and write up her medications on her white board. We were told that while the cancer was caught early, the biopsy showed that it was a very aggressive form of cancer (Stress & hormone related) and Mum would have to go through Chemotherapy as well as Radiation Therapy.
Chemo was first.
I didn’t know what to expect with Chemo, as Dad never had it. All I had heard is stories from other people, sometimes second and third removed, about how bad it was. But I was positive, and the Oncologist told us that the Chemo recipe’s had come along way and most people just feel a bit crap and lethargic. No biggy! We could totally do this.
Chemo started, firstly a 4 hour session with the BEAUTIFUL nurses at the local private hospital. One stood out, Shaz. She was down to earth, professional, informative, and compassionate. All the things you need when you’re in the Chemo room. She inserted the cannula into Mum’s hand and we waited. About 5 minutes in, Mum’s face went bright red and she couldn’t breathe. It was the scariest thing. The nurses were amazing, and came to her rescue within seconds. They explained that it is a common reaction, and they paused the treatment until she was feeling OK. Unfortunately, Cancer doesn’t care if you react… You’ve just got to keep going and get on with it. That was the first and only time that happened, thank God. I asked the nurses what to expect that day, and the days following. They reiterated what the oncologist had said, but also said every is so different so we will just have to wait and see. Day 3 I received a phone call from Mum at 11:30pm at night. She was in distress and really, really unwell. Half asleep, I hightailed it over to her and took her up to emergency. The first of many, many hospital visits. We were up there until about 2am, the nurse we had in ER had very poor bedside manner, and little empathy for a woman who was scared shitless after her first session of Chemo. I was SO disappointed in her, and really pissed off that she was making Mum feel like a burden for being unwell. The next morning getting up to kids was harder than anything. No newborn cluster feeding ever exhausted me this much. Luckily for me, Dez was able to stay home until 9am (Instead of leaving at 7am) and my beautiful Best Friend (Nicole) came over at about 10 and played with the kids so I could shower, she made us lunch and was just like this glorious angel.
So, days 3 & 4 after every chemo session proved to be the worst. Hospital visits every time. Many, many pain killers. Medications for so many things. All combined. This is the time I started losing my Mum. She was there physically, but she was no longer my Mum. She stopped smiling, she stopped eating, she lost the sparkle in her eye. What I also knew though, was that I would get her back. So I HAD to be strong. Strong enough for the both of us. I called her every day (if not twice a day) from June until October, and Mum later told me that my phone calls were what got her through her hardest days. She was SO isolated by the side effects from her treatment, she didn’t want to see anyone. But she also desperately needed something/someone to get her through this. Her immune system was so low that she couldn’t go out, and sometimes it meant she had to turn away visitors too. After about the 3rd session, enough of her hair had fallen out to warrant a shave. I’ll remember this day forever. I was honoured to be the one asked to shave Mum’s head, but it also just tore my heart apart.
I remember one weekend in September so vividly. I’d popped over to Mum’s on a Sunday afternoon as my Brother and his kids were visiting from Geelong. I saw our kids running circles around her, us trying to engage in conversation. I watched Mum, and her leg was shaking irratically and she had this permanently strained face. It was then that I twigged. She was having a reaction to her medication. On top of EVERYTHING else, she’s having a reaction. I trailed through her enormous medication list to find the culprit. Maxalon, an anti-nausea medication. The only reason I knew, is because I had the same reaction to the same medication after my surgery (one of many, but that’s a whole other story!) when I was pregnant with Audrey. I called the Dr straight away, and sure enough… She’d been taking this anti-nausea medication for almost 4 months and slowly but surely it was killing her.
After 4 months, Mum’s final round of chemo was done and dusted. And radiation subsequently followed and seemed like a walk in the park compared to Chemo. I stupidly celebrated thinking that it was all over. What I didn’t know, is that the worst was yet to come. I expected the side effects from Chemo would lift fairly quickly, maybe a few weeks as it made it’s way out of Mum’s body. And it may have, but the mental side effects were worse than ever. Still no smile. Still no spark. I remember distinctly one afternoon I was driving home from seeing Mum, sobbing like a child. I felt like I had lost both of my parents. I’d been strong throughout this whole experience, but I just snapped. The tears in my eyes well up as I write this, as it’s probably the most painful emotion I have ever felt. Out of sheer desperation, I called Mum’s ‘Breast Care Nurse’ as she had mentioned when we first met her, that she was there to support me too. I’m not one to ask for help at the best of times (something I’m working on) so this was really hard for me. But I’m so glad I did, because within seconds I felt better as she explained ‘Chemo Fog’ to me. This is the term used for patients who have undergone Chemotherapy, and towards the end (or when they have finished) of their treatment, they go into a fog. She couldn’t really tell me the medical reason, but explained it was more of a mental/emotional thing… similar to shock.
Finally, in November of 2017, I felt like I was getting my Mumma back. She still wasn’t eating much, but she was there. She was present. She may not have had the sparkle back in her eyes, but I could see that my Mum was returning. She was starting to talk about plans for the future, and when she asked if she could host Christmas that year, I knew we were through the hardest part. No more phone calls twice a day, I had to pull back a little because I was completely and utterly exhausted. There is no question I love my Mum to the end of this earth, but I needed to focus on myself a little. As she got better, I felt more comfortable to let her care for herself more. And by January this year, she had started her transition into returning to her work.
So, in comparing what I thought Chemo would be, and what it actually was? It was worse than I could ever have imagined and I wasn’t even the one with poison flowing through my body. I hate it, but it also saved my Mum’s life. It’s so bittersweet. I can totally understand why people say no to the treatment. To anyone going through it, I salute you. Almost exactly one year on, and on April 28th 2018 we celebrated Mum’s remission (ironically, on the anniversary of my Dad’s passing) – We booked a cute AirBNB in Daylesford, played boardgames by the fire, enjoyed the day spa’s up the road, and just… enjoyed the fact that it was all over.
It’s funny, I get to the bottom of this blog, and I feel like a weight have been lifted from my shoulders. At this point in time, I don’t even know if I will publish it. But writing? Man it’s cathartic. I really don’t think I have dealt with Mum’s Cancer until this very day. She was sick, and I was caring for her. Then she was better, and we kind of got back to life. But I think I needed to write it down, and acknowledge what a cluster-fuck last year was. I don’t need pity, and I’m sure this is of very little interest to others… but putting pen to paper (ahem, tapping the keys on the keyboard) has made me feel like I am a bloody strong woman. I’ve been through a lot. But, I’m damn sure it’s made me a better person.
And lastly? To all my beautiful, strong friends who are weathering Mother’s Day without their Mumma’s – I’m thinking of you.
Big Love, Leah
~ xoxo ~
If you are going through something similar, please know that you are not alone. There are some amazing support groups that I will list below, so please don’t be too afraid (or ‘strong’) to reach out if you need help.
Otis Foundation (provides getaways for family’s dealing with cancer)
Cancer Council Australia (Have different groups specific to each type of cancer)
Cancer Council Telephone Support Groups
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