In April 2014 my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though nearly everyone in her family has had cancer it was a strange sensation. It was still one of those things that happened to other people. Not to us. At the time she was diagnosed, she and my sister were not on speaking terms so it was up to me to relay the news. Oh being the middle man. Thus began my role in my mother’s journey towards being cancer free. It’s a role many others take on, and it’s not an easy one. It is the role of the caregiver.
I grew up in hospitals. I have various amounts of illnesses, so I learned at an early age the importance of note-taking, listening carefully, and getting along with doctors. They are the experts. I am not. But I learned a lot from them, and from nurses and how they treated their patients. Caring for a relative with cancer can, at many times, feel like being a nurse. Essentially that’s exactly what caregivers are. This article will showcase what I learned not from health care providers, but from my mom as I took care of her.
The most important part to caring for a relative with cancer is knowing the person. When my mom told me her diagnosis, I was stone-faced and factual. I asked questions about staging, had it metastasized, next steps, etc. There was no point worrying about worst cases until we had more information. But my mom needed me to cry. She needed me to show that this was the end of the world. Looking back, I should have done something, even fake emotions I was holding at bay until we got more results. Throughout the rest of our journey, she appreciated this part of my care but says she just needed something else at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I cry pretty much all the time. Once when my husband and I went grocery shopping he picked up four boxes of crackers. I started to cry. There were so many boxes of crackers. But my mom is just as emotional. During her appointments and treatment sessions, she needed someone level headed. So I stopped thinking about crackers and started thinking about the enemy, cancer.
The next important part is knowing the enemy. My mom was diagnosed with stage 2B ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). M0 T2/3 N1 and HER2 positive to be exact. I went over every pathology report and recorded everything for me and my mom. Being armed with this information made it easier to understand the doctor and the treatment plans, and it also helped me explain to my mom next steps. Most of the doctor appointments went over her head or she couldn’t fully concentrate on them, so I would go over my notes with her after step by step. It helped me process everything, too. Knowing the enemy helped us process the fight.
Another important part to all of this is sacrifice. My husband and I were barely married a year when my mom was diagnosed, and we live in a different city than my mom. To top it off, I don’t drive. I took a greyhound to be there for every doctor appointment, stayed a few days after she got her port inserted, and stayed with her a week after her mastectomy which included three days sleeping in the hospital with her. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I’m so thankful I was able to be part of this journey, but it definitely took its toll on all of us. You need to let your loved one know that the sacrifices that are made, by everyone, are not only willing but desired. At the end of her treatment, my mom got back in touch with my sister and she was able to care for my mom at times (which was easier as they live in the same city) but I still wanted to be there. I wanted to be able to take care of my mom. Any sacrifice I gave is nothing compared to what my mom has had to give up.
December 5th, 2014 my mom was declared cancer free. In that time she lost her hair, lost 20 pounds, had double pneumonia (which put her in the hospital for twelve days), six rounds of chemo, 25 rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and has now developed lymphedema. Through it all, I’ve had no greater accomplishment in my life so far than being able to take care of my mom. It’s not easy being a caregiver, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I know most others would say the same.