My mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis made me feel something unexpected

Woman comforting her aged mother

Every night, I fall asleep reflecting on my childhood and the memories I have of my mother (Image: Getty Images)

Last December, when my five-year-old son asked why Grandma didn’t spend Christmas Day anymore at our house, I found myself crying.

I had to explain to him that Grandmother’s cancer was making it difficult for her to travel.

She was in tears, but comforted to know we would be visiting them instead.

Except, as I reassured her, it occurred to me that Mum might never see our house again.

He won’t be taking my kids to school anymore, or bringing them cookies and milkshakes at their favorite cafe.

Won’t be spending another Christmas with us.

I feel like I started grieving him even before he died.

I feel lucky and blessed that I have had both my parents for 40 years, but that doesn’t make my mother’s cancer diagnosis incurable. easier to digest.

In fact, I’ve spent the 18 months since her diagnosis going through anticipatory grief — and it has marked periods of emotional instability.

At times it was intense, at times I felt conflicted – conflicted between the hope that the doctors would find a miracle cure for Mum, and the sadness at the thought of her death.

Mum previously had breast cancer in 2016, and had just turned ‘all clear’ five years old in 2021 when she started experiencing pain in her legs and pelvis. He became more tired than usual for a 70 year old.

Her GP quickly checked her with oncology and within weeks, after scans and blood tests, confirmed that she had secondary, incurable bone cancer.

My parents live on the other side of the country from us, and during the pandemic, we spent 18 months unable to see each other. Mom’s diagnosis came right after we managed to catch up after the restrictions were lifted.

I feel robbed. Not only did we spend nearly two years apart, but we are also now faced with the possibility of only having a few more months with him.

I was devastated, and I was angry – angry for us, but also for Mom, that this was the path she was going to go. That he had to go through radiotherapy and chemo again to give him more time.

The first few months when Mom started her treatment were full of worries and it was terrible talking to her on the phone, hearing her voice so weak and tired.

I guess, looking back, I didn’t realize that was when my anguish of anticipation started.

Every night, I fall asleep reflecting on my childhood and the memories I have of my mother, and cry myself to sleep.

I’m in panic mode if mom is having a really bad day, and the run up to an appointment makes me scared and worried about getting sick. It’s tiring.

She was given strong doses of chemo tablets to take every day and the side effects were not good. Bad stomach, no appetite and extreme tiredness were just a few of them, and visiting her during treatment it was horrifying to see her fragility. It looked like he was about 15 years old, and had lost a lot of weight.

Anticipating that this is the beginning of the end can be overwhelming

It seems Mother slipped away before my eyes. That I have lost him.

Those first few months, I tried to focus on the here and now – not allowing myself to think about the future. The oncologist could not give a time frame but is optimistic that, if treatment is successful, he will have at least a year.

It was a case of taking things from month to month.

Gradually, the mother’s body begins to adapt to chemo and the side effects begin to subside.

She’s kind of back to the Mom we knew – her mischievous sense of humor is back, she’s bossing Dad around again and organizing coffee and cake with her friends. Even with mobility problems, and sadness lurking behind his eyes.

Scans showed that, although the tumor was still there, there were no signs of cancer growing or spreading – a great relief for all of us. It helps me push the sadness to the back of my mind, and the end doesn’t seem so close.

It felt like we could breathe a little, with the possibility of him making it past his freshman year term seems much more likely.

Now, 18 months on, luckily Mom is still here – but the cancer is slowly spreading. Daily chemo keeps him alive, but the anticipatory anguish I feel continues.

It began to dawn on me that, because of Mother’s increasing mobility problems, it was unlikely that she would ever make the trip to visit our home again.

That there will be no more impromptu visits to see the kids on their birthdays, or Christmas in our homes.

As each opportunity passed, I asked myself: would he be there next?

There is an almost constant feeling of dread and, while his sudden death will be very difficult to accept, this slow and protracted separation is difficult to endure.

Being in what feels like an on-and-off limbo state is an emotional rollercoaster.

Every scan, every appointment – ​​the anticipation that this is the beginning of the end can be draining, and I feel guilty, when Mother whose life is hanging in the balance.

The oncologist is happy with what mom is doing and has nothing more to say about the time frame. But what we do know is that time is running out when the drugs no longer work. And this makes me feel sometimes anxious, because… when will it be?

Instead, I try to see her as a mother living with cancer, rather than dying from it – and talking to friends really helps.

My feelings are validated. I’m not alone in my head and changing the narrative from dead to living together means I’m feeling a lot more positive.

It helped Mom, too – accepting that this is her life now means she’s living it even longer.

Of course, the sadness didn’t just go away.

I still have moments that catch me off guard — finding pictures of my mom and me when I was a baby, for example. And, recently when a friend’s mother was diagnosed with the same type of cancer, I found myself sobbing.

It’s not something that everyone will experience, which can be difficult for friends and family members to understand. That’s partly why I’m writing this anonymously – because I don’t want them to know, or my mother reading this.

But I’ve found that taking care of myself — exercising, eating well, and journaling — helps keep my mind more rested, alongside leaning on my partner and friends as and when I need it.

My biggest piece of advice for other people who feel this way is: don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, to talk about it.

If you don’t think you have friends who will understand, or you’re feeling embarrassed, Marie Curie, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support are helpful charities where you can talk to someone privately.

These are all practical ways of coping – and, as I continue to navigate my way through Mum’s illness and the anticipation of the grief it brings, I know I’ll need it more than ever.

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