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When Mom Was Diagnosed With Cancer, My Anxiety Took A Break

Mom's determination became my catalyst

Photo credit: Lisa Gallagher August, 2013 At Ferrante Winery in Geneva Ohio

Mom was diagnosed with Lung Cancer in June of 2013. The news was devastating and I remember thinking- how am I going to help her and my step dad get through this? I digress, the photo above was taken 1.5 months into mom’s chemotherapy. She was on a high dose of steroids and I swear, she had more energy than all of us combined; which included myself and my 4 siblings. Mom hated smiling for photos but after she was diagnosed, she smiled without prompting. We would tease her and say, “you’re like a hummingbird on crack!”  It was so good to see my mom handling the chemotherapy so well and enjoying life. She was so ill prior to her diagnosis, we thought we were losing her then. 

When the doctor gave us her diagnosis, I cried and cried.  I could not believe such a vibrant woman was facing grave circumstances.  In hindsight, I think my entire family, including myself went into a phase of denial after her diagnosis. After all, she was high energy and and was always up to the next adventure. Mom spent the entire summer going on outings with one of us (her children), having parties at the house which was a norm during the summers and she would say, “hey don’t worry about me, I’m going through all of this to live, I don’t plan on dying.” We wouldn’t bring up death but I’m fairly certain mom knew our fears better than we did. Mom’s are fairly perceptive and protective of their children’s fears. 

Fast forward- mom began receiving radiation to her brain because her lung cancer had spread to the brain as well. Once she began radiation, our beautiful, little hummingbird on crack became more like a turtle. The steroids they had mom on worked wonderfully until the radiation. Reality was beginning to set back in again. 

My father died from cancer when I was 10 years old. I remember thinking as I grew older that I was glad I had no idea he was dying and I didn’t have to watch him take his last breath as my mom did. He died at home under the care of a Doctor and my mom. 

When I realized mom was declining one of my first thoughts was, I can’t watch my mom die. I can’t be present during the last stage of her life or I may have a panic attack and I didn’t want my illness to be evident during her cancer. Mom’s health and well-being were at the top of my list. I had so many fears that my anxiety would increase as she waned and that I would be unable to be there for her. I’m not sure where I drew strength from but I was able to spend more time with my mom than I usually spent with her prior to the diagnosis of cancer. 

I believe that focusing on mom along with the closeness that my siblings and I developed helped to stay centered. We were always a close family thanks to my mom but we became that much closer after mom’s diagnosis.  We respected my mom’s wishes and shared our fears with one another. Mom never wanted to talk about her cancer, she would say, “Hey it could be worse.” She was always a strong woman but her strength really shined after she became ill. I don’t remember mom ever complaining. I do remember thinking in the back of my mind that I still would not be able to handle watching her pass when that time came. 

Mom was diagnosed with late stage small cell lung cancer in June of 2013. We were warned that most people don’t live longer than 6 months with treatment after the diagnosis. Mom went on to live almost 3 years, she was a fighter. She was told not to go into the basement to do laundry about 2 years after her diagnosis because she was becoming so weak. She shared with me one day that she devised a system so she could still do her laundry- mom tied a rope to her clothes basket and would pull it up the stairs so she could fold the clothes. I think her determination to not stop ‘living’ kept her ALIVE longer!  Mom called all the shots until the end and I want to believe this also kept her dignity intact along with extending her life. We all respected her wishes even when we thought, “Mom needs to slow down, she’s burning herself out.” 

I lived over 2 hours away but made sure to stop in about every 4 weeks and spend a few days when I did get into town. My last trip to mom’s house while she was alive was in January of 2016. While I was in town (and I made plans to be there for an extended period of time), mom went into a Semi-Coma 2 days before she passed. She was unable to swallow, when she did awaken, she was confused and distressed. Mom became bedridden in November of 2015 because she broke her shoulder from a simple fall. 

Once mom was bedridden I knew she wasn’t going to recover. My anxiety began to creep up and I thought, no- I can’t be there to watch her pass. Well someone had other plans for me and a few other siblings in my family who felt the same.  The day after mom went into a semi-coma she woke up and kept saying, “I don’t know what happened yesterday but I feel so good today.” She sure did feel good, she drank 40 ounces of fluids, was able to swallow, talk, laugh and eat! The day before when mom was in a semi-coma she was telling me that she saw people. I asked her if they were still here on earth? She told me no. Her eyes looked frantic and I wasn’t sure if she was seeing people that scared her so I asked if they were nice people? Mom said yes, and then I asked if she saw dad… mom became upset and said, “NO, NO… I don’t wan’t to talk about it!”  I worked in a hospital for years and I remember thinking after her ‘surge’ that it was always a sign the person would be passing soon.  Everything was happening so fast, I had no time for my anxiety to kick in which was a good thing. 

The morning after mom’s surge I got a call ( I was staying at  a friends home not far from my mom). It was my sister and she said, ” I think you might want to get over here fast, mom took a turn for the worst and her breathing became a struggle this morning so I had to give her morphine.”  Again, no anxiety, just typical anxiety anyone would feel when facing loss.  I was there within a half hour. 

We all stood by mom’s bed caressing her as she struggled to breathe. I told her my brother (her son) would be there very soon and her breathing became rapid as if she was holding on. My brother arrived within 10 minutes or less after I told her and had a few minutes alone with her to say what he needed, as did we all. After he shared his private thoughts, we all gathered and around mom to caress and hold her like a child. I finally told her we would be okay and so would dad. We also said, “It’s okay to let go mom, we will all be OKAY.”  I ran to a bedroom because I began to cry. Within a minute or so after I left the bedside my siblings came running in crying so hard they seemed unable to breathe. 

For many, myself included, we can go into shock after the loss of a loved one. I ran back out to the living room where mom was lying and asked the hospice nurse if mom had died? She told me yes, hugged me and said she was so sorry.” I just remember saying, I need to get back to my sisters and  brother. 

I didn’t see my mom take her last breath, did she know I wouldn’t be able to handle that? I will never know but I’m glad I was there with the rest of my family to help guide her home. I’m glad she knew before she passed that we would get through this together and always stay close. I’m glad she was aware that my step dad would continue to be a vital part of our lives. They say the hearing is the last thing to go when a person is dying, I have to believe that’s true after whispering that my brother was on his way and her breathing increased until be arrived. I believe with every fiber in my body that mom wanted us all with her when she passed on. 

I was elated that my anxiety, for what ever reasons, took a back seat during my mom’s Illness and I was able to function. I have no regrets. The only regret- I wish she would have never became terminally ill but that’s not a choice any of us are given in life. 

Mom died on January 13th, 2016- my anxiety disease decided to rear it’s ugly head about 4 months later. I’m still working on it. I’m grateful that it wasn’t present during mom’s life and passing. I think holding it in opened up a can of worms. Loss affects each of us differently. I went through certain stages of grief but there were a few my ‘mind’ missed. Grief can bring up a lot of baggage from the past if it wasn’t dealt with.  I’m thankful that my anxiety went on hold until after her passing, I can only think… it was a blessing from something higher than myself. I’m glad I was there the day she passed. I think I might have beat myself up over and over if I would have avoided her last moments here on earth. 

Mom taught me so much during her illness and with her passing. Those are good thoughts to hold onto while searching for internal healing. 

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