Friday, April 29, 2011

#67 - Life Sure Ain't Fair Mother!

My mother died when she was 57 years old of breast cancer. That was five years ago, and I was 38 years old. She fought with commitment and determination against those self-defeating cancer cells.

booster radiation,
port installed under the skin for constant injection access,
numerous chemo-therapies,
brain "target" radiation and more...
she kept going through each step in an attempt to kill the cancer so she could keep living. In the end, she would die and take the cancer down with her.

How could getting cancer ever come at a "good" time? Well, it definitely can come during worst times than others. More precisely, my mom's cancer came at a terrible time in my family's life. I had just been diagnosed with Addison's after falling extremely ill from severe deterioration resulting from a much delayed diagnosis. Most definitely, I had been in the hands of some of the most brilliant medical teams in the WORLD and my diagnosis was missed. Within days of being released from St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, I was at home, going unconscious and was taken from my home by EMS workers with a blood pressure of 68 over 42 to a nearby relatively small hospital. Against the paramedics urging, my husband made a decision that helped to save my life, he had them send me to a local hospital instead of sending me back to Houston's large and renowned Medical Center. He followed the ambulance in his car, not knowing if I'd still be alive upon arrival. He knew that something was clearly wrong and we needed a fresh perspective.

To the smaller hospital I went and this is where I coded. On the cardiac floor, wearing a telemetry unit, I coded and the doctor ran a series of tests to discover I had Addison's. The small hospital spread the news of the woman who had been from doctor to doctor, from hospital to hospital, even in several big-ego hospitals, but it took this "smaller hospital" to unveil the rare disease. I was near death and this incredible cardiologist uncovered the Addison's mystery and I began a slow recovery that would have ongoing hurdles.

However, the extended time of living in an Addison's crisis and the long recovery ahead of me meant that everything in my life changed. My successful business went into the toilet. As I've said before, you cannot run a business if you cannot lift your head off of a pillow. My mother was constantly helping with my young two daughters and it was a trying time for all of us. My husband had no more time available to take off without being docked. I needed my mother. So, we made the decision to sell our house and move back into my childhood home. The doctors told me it would take me at least one year to become stabilized, so this decision was a no-brainer.

A choice formed from no choice.

In my mother's home, I was able to rest as needed. All schools were within a very short walking distance from their house. This is the entire reason my parents purchased this home after we had moved back to America from living in Scotland. My mother was disabled and we kids had to look out for ourselves. Getting to and from school had always been our own job, no matter the weather. So, living in this house, again, was helpful because my precious daughters were able to walk everywhere --- to school, to church, to their new friend's houses and my parents had a pool in the backyard, big bonus. It was more tough than I can express to move back into my parent's home, but it was a wise decision.

After about a year of living there, I had begun to regain strength. To get out of the house and to allow myself continued control over the "bad" days, I began to substitute for the school district. I loved being with children. My life was certainly different. I was making markedly less money, but I was happy. Then, one day, my mom found a lump in the lower portion of her breast, close to the sternum. She had mammograms every year but they did not detect any lumps, yet they were definitely present. M.D. Anderson sent her for an MRI and the truth was confirmed over and over through several different had cancer...invasive carcinoma.

The day she received the phone call, I was home, not feeling well. Lying in bed, I heard the phone ring, heard her answer and then all went quiet. I just knew. I sunk deeper into the mattress, knowing it was THE call. After a few minutes, I walked into her bedroom and she was sitting in her wheelchair with her head down. It was a defeating moment.

I put my hand on her shoulder and she raised her one good arm to hold my hand and she said, "It's cancer." We hugged, but I could not cry.

From that day forward, I knew that it was time for us four to get out of my parents way. Deep down, I knew they had limited time together and as much as my mother actually enjoyed having us there, I knew they needed as much privacy as possible. I personally knew how strained a marriage could become when one of the partners becomes seriously ill; I didn't want them to feel as if they were under a microscope. The strain in the house with two women battling illness was just too much. I don't know if my dad could've taken much more.

Most of my adult life, I lived a few blocks from my mother's house. But, during this time, God blessed me to find a house for us to purchase that was only six houses down from my mother's house. That was an incredible journey of its own. We made renovations and moved down the street. We were close enough to help my mother daily, yet remained far enough away to give mom and dad their space. So, it turns out, my mom and I helped each other through our battles. I often have moments of feeling incredibly sad that our last years together were incredibly marred by illness, but the cancer and my rare disease also served as a catalyst in promoting a closeness between us that surpassed any normal bond. Plus, our mutual warped sense of humor carried us through days that would have otherwise been dark and dank.

The "staging" report of her cancer gave us such good news...increased hope for more time with mom! My mom's cancer was found so early -- it was charted as "Stage 1, possible Stage 2" and she was expected to have wonderful odds in her favor.

Treatment was almost barbaric. That's what I had thought as part of her breast turned black as radiation progressed. The doctors said that they didn't see this side effect very often, but my mom had obvious reddish and burnt tissue from the radiation. As for the radiation, in the beginning, we found it fascinating when they "tattooed" cross-hair markings for the radiation machine to delivery its beam with precision. However, we knew the situation was grave. Mom and I had many, many trips together to M.D. Anderson so we could go to the basement for her radiation treatments. I hated that her veins were pulverized. The chemo made her hair fall out in clumps. We may have come a long way in science, but it is still brutal to be on the receiving end. I learned that no one talks about the realities behind the scenes with breast cancer. Since no one in our family had ever battled breast cancer, we all felt blind-sided and totally unprepared. This experience has contributed greatly to me finally opening up about my Addison's more silence that turns into secrets. What about others out there who are trying to find their way through the rareness of Addison's? Breast cancer in my mother helped me to wisen up.

After the good news about her initial Stage and treatments, the total opposite of what was expected is what occurred. She went downhill rapidly. After she'd completed all treatment and went a year "cancer free," she began to have joint pains. I tried to convince my mother that it was related to her body being disabled from the Polio that had crippled her at a young age. The ongoing ramifications continued as Post-Polio Syndrome made daily life more challenging.

However, I took her back to see her M.D. Anderson doctor and they decided, as a mere precaution, to run more tests. The doctor said it was "highly unlikely" that the cancer had returned, but that was far from their shocking findings. Eventually, the experts at M.D. Anderson suspected that her body had endured so much already that it simply was not strong enough to fight the cancer. In fact, the chemo treatments seemed to have left her body more weakened than with normal patients. Of course, she didn't start out as a "normal" patient.

It wasn't fair. Looking back at how she had survived the Polio Virus, I was numb. My mother always triumphs. Geesh...At five years of age, my mother had lost her ability to walk, to run, and her lungs were too weak to sing. The Polio Virus invaded her left arm as well and it would never be useful; this arm was smaller and remained permanently out of socket. Us kids would never know what it feels like to be fully hugged by a healthy two-arm strong mother. We'd never jog, run, or play around in a way that required legs with our mother. We'd grow up with a mother that drew strange looks and we learned to deal with the anger felt when someone made careless remarks about her appearance. But, my mom's one arm was nearly super human in strength. No other mom had an arm like that mad-dog!

She had one working leg, her left leg. The right was paralyzed by Polio as well. She was a semi-hemi pelagic that could hobble along for years, until her body no longer cooperated and became wheelchair bound. In fact, we grew up with wheelchair ramps, leg braces, various wheelchairs and electric lifts for vehicles and on and on (she could only go out in an electric chair because she only had one usable arm and one usable leg, so she would go in circles with the push type). Therefore, the cancer seemed incredibly unfair. Go pick on someone of your own strength - stupid cancer!

Mom propped against the tree for this photo.
Staying at Gonzales Hospital.
At her diagnosis, my burly dad cried in my arms. How could this happen to a woman who had battled nearly her entire life against medical hurdles? How could this woman who had overcome every imaginable obstacle be taken down by cancer? She had survived the Polio virus, a virus that killed so many others and now she was being assaulted by cancer. How could this woman who spent ONE YEAR in an iron lung end up with tiny lumps that were made up of mutated cells that multiplied and took over her body?

Horrible - Jr. High Days for me, Homecoming and
my Burly Dad. The neighbors didn't mess with this man.
Still don't.

Burly dad - early 1970's here in this shot. No scary facial hair here!'
He was about to leave to work on Off-Shore Oil Rigs in the North Sea.
She had rang the bell at M.D. Anderson to signal the end of her "successful" treatment. But, about one year after being labeled "cancer-free" she began to feel pains in her joints that turned out to be cancer that had was in her femur, her skull, her rib cage, her spine and in the base of her brain. It literally spread like a wildfire. For my mother, a woman who had a Master's Degree in Education, the cancer reaching her brain was the worst. She wanted her mental capabilities to remain intact until her dying breath. The body disintegrating...she could handle. She'd already been through that, but the ability to be mentally clear...that was an untouchable area that she could not contemplate. Thank God, there was mercy upon her in this area. The Lord did not give her more than she could take. She could take dying; just not the absence of knowing she was dying.

In less than three years from her "Stage 1" cancer, the ordeal was over. My mother peacefully died from her home, as she wished. I had one breakdown as I went back into her room to inspect her body before my brother and sister and the other grandchildren arrived. My cousin Laura had lovingly combed her soft hair, put a tiny bit of lipstick on her lips and my mother did not have one wrinkle, at 57 years of age, no wrinkles.
Delicate mother -- now has the three children she wanted
after ALL doctors told her that it would be impossible for her
to be able to maintain a pregnancy or give birth.
She defied the odds...three times.
Laura worked as a critical-care nurse and would not let me prepare my own mother's body, as I had been determined to do. Is my family unconventional and somewhat old-fashioned in these areas? Absolutely. These things were once a normal part of a loved one's death. The dining room table had once been used in our American history to display the loved one who had passed. It was not a corporate affair. Now, we hire out for everything and most often, it is necessary. However, our family had an odd sense of determination to protect my mother from the hands of strangers.

This day of her passing would be her only memorial with her body for viewing as she had strict feelings against being on "display" in a coffin. She didn't even want friends to see her after she passed away. She believed in dust to dust, the faster, the better. I guess she had felt like a guinea pig for her entire life and once she had entered eternal rest, she truly wanted to be left alone. We honored her wishes. So, my cousin Laura had put her foot down against me prepping my mother's body for the rest of the family to see and for this, I actually am forever grateful. I could have done it, but to walk in and to see my mother looking exactly as she would have approved was a beautiful gift my cousin gave to all of us. Peaceful, with her babydoll face, my mother laid in her room with the sun shining through the windows as she loved and her body was no longer tense with pain. She was free. She was running. My mother, for the first time since five years of age was again running.

I wanted to cry for my mother. I could not do more than one cry because my left lung was collapsed from a recent Cardio-Thoracic surgery. I did not have the lung capacity to handle the heaving that would come with immense sadness. And, I had to be careful to not end up in the hospital with an Addison's Crisis on top of what my family was already enduring. Tending to yourself when losing your mother is not easy, but it was my job to make sure a hard situation did not become more complicated. Thankfully, I was strong and able to get through this very rough time with proper increased stress doses to combat the lack of sleep, the exhaustion, the huge toll that the emotional stress of losing your mother can cause...I remained diligent, for my children.

Why do things like this happen? How could we go from me fighting for my life and my children living so concerned that their mother would die to then find their adored, attentive grandmother dying when they still needed her the most? My family had gone through one huge battle after another and it seemed to be too much, but we all kept going. Uncanny strength is our heritage and I kept remembering this as I continued onward, without my mother, because great battles were headed my way. I would not give up. Through the worst of the worst, I would do my best because I had learned from the best.
Big Burly Dad AND Grandpa living happier days.
Here at oldest Grand-daughter's College
graduation from Texas A&M, Biology Degree


  1. Hi Lana, I just found your blog. You write so well and it is so apparent what a wonderful mother you had. Thank you for sharing. I so understand you. I have Sheehan's Syndrome. Best, Lisa aka HypoGal

  2. Thank you for the compliment...I've been writing for as long as I can remember. It's been a huge part of my existence to put pen to paper and now to type out my experiences via blogging. As for my mom, she was indeed a great mom. She was my friend too. I know a little about Sheehan's Syndrome...all of us do help each other out by our confiding the realities of living with these conditions. The best to you too! Thanks for reading!



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