On Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, my world came crashing down around me. It was the day I learned my mother has stage 3 lung cancer. My mom and my sister, who live in Missouri, broke the news to me during a FaceTime video chat, and I felt everything and nothing at the same time.
I remember at first being in disbelief. This can’t be happening, I thought. Not cancer. Not my mom, my rock, my biggest supporter, my role model and my safety net. No way. I felt tears streaming down my face and it dawned on me that I was crying. My mom’s voice faded in and out as I seemingly lost my ability to focus but still tried desperately to pay attention to what I was being told. The room spun and a thousand thoughts, scenarios, fears and emotions overwhelmed my brain. Strangely, though, when Mom asked if I had any questions, I just stared at her through the tiny screen of my smartphone. I nodded in acknowledgment as she delivered the worst news I’d ever received in my life, but I could not speak. I was numb.
As Mom and my sister, Lacey, stifled sobs of their own, it occurred to me that falling apart wouldn’t help anything. My mom needed support, help and optimism. She needed me to be strong and brave — just as she’s always taught me to be. I tried to muster a courageous expression as I asked a few questions that I now realize probably didn’t make much sense, likely a testament to the fact I couldn’t yet force myself to accept my mom’s diagnosis.
“So, what is the official name of the illness we’re dealing with?” I asked, though I had just been told.
“Lung cancer,” Mom replied.
I’m not sure why I asked that, but I think deep in my subconscious, I was hoping what the doctors had found was just a lung nodule or a benign tumor that easily could be removed. I clung to the idea that there was more to the situation, information that hadn’t yet been shared with me. There wasn’t.
My mom — my beloved mentor and hero — has a 1.5-centimeter malignant tumor on her left lung and two cancerous lymph nodes, each about 2 centimeters in diameter. She’s currently a few weeks into her chemotherapy and radiation regimen, and I’m still not certain how I got from that terrible day in early November to this point in her treatment. The past six weeks are a blur — a tear-jerking roller-coaster ride full of online research, near-constant phone calls with my family about test results and doctors’ appointments, hysterical meltdowns when I’m sure no one is watching and prayers. So many prayers.
Mom is doing OK. Her treatment is going as well as it can, and she’s otherwise healthy, positive and strong. I envy her amazingly upbeat attitude and often battle guilt for the bitterness and resentment I feel at having this horrible situation unjustly thrust upon my family.
I wish I could be there to accompany Mom to her medical appointments and chemotherapy sessions, like my dad, sister and brother do. With 800 miles between us, I feel helpless and removed from my family’s new reality. However, they do make sure to keep me in the loop, and not a day goes by when I don’t talk to my mom either by phone, text or email.
I try to make up for my absence in other ways, like sending Mom care packages stocked with items that chemotherapy patients typically find handy, such as hard ginger candies to keep nausea at bay, warm hats, lotion and lip balm to combat the drugs’ drying side effects, snacks and hand sanitizer. I’ve also conducted extensive research on natural methods for increasing white-blood cell counts, which can plummet during chemo, making it difficult for patients to fight off infections.
I’ve slowly accepted that this is the hand we’ve been dealt. Eventually, maybe I’ll go a whole day without breaking down into tears, but the thing that helps me the most now is being around my daughter, Reese. I know I have to give her the impression that everything is fine, because, at 2, she’s much too young to understand what’s happening. We haven’t even tried to explain it to her.
In a way, I, too, feel like a child who is utterly unprepared to grasp and deal with what is happening. I want to be selfish and isolate myself so I can sort out my feelings. Early on, I was angry that the world just seemed to go on as it normally would, even though, to me, life screeched to a halt. I couldn’t believe I had to deal with the everyday minutiae of work, chores and family obligations.
It didn’t take much for me to realize I needed to abandon the unrealistic expectation that the world would cut me some slack. I only had to look to my mom, who, of course, was determined to persevere. Between doctors’ visits, treatments, post-chemo recovery days and keeping her family updated, she is going to work, church and trying to continue with her “normal” routine. She decorated her house for the holidays, baked goodies and went Christmas shopping.
If she can be strong, stay positive and look forward to happier times, then I can too. My family and I know that it’s time to provide unconditional support to the one who has never hesitated to put our needs before her own. We’re ready to repay the favor indefinitely.