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Cancer: the diagnosis that stole my mom.

Life is precious and can change with the stroke of a clock.

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The girls were hanging out in our bedroom after doing their homework. I had just published the post about my kitchen cabinets and was on the phone trying to schedule a delivery. My husband, Courtney, had just arrived home from work and the dogs were zooming all over the place. My watch buzzed that my mom text me, but what I didn’t realize is that one text would change everything.

Mom as a baby

For the last month my mom told me she was really tired, wasn’t really eating much, and chalked it up to the flu or some other sickness. On our normal Sunday phone call, she said that she was so tired that even taking a shower took everything out of her. I begged her to go to the doctor. She finally agreed, even though she insisted it was probably her thyroid.

My grandfather Iven, grandmother Barbara, aunt Tammy, and my mom.

It wasn’t her thyroid.

Wednesday, March 13th she went to the doctor and they collected blood samples. The next day, they told her to go straight to the ER and by 5pm the text she sent:

“it didn’t look good, is most likely liver cancer.”

Immediately I screamed “NOOOOOOOO” and ran straight to Courtney and the girls. I gave him my phone because the words weren’t coming out other than “NO”. I grabbed it back and called her. I tried to keep it together, but did a horrible job. They put me on speaker phone while the ER doctor confirmed our worst nightmare.

Mom class of 1974

It was cancer.

After all the tests it was in her breast, lung, adrenal glands, and liver. Mom sent me the CT scan report which said things like “too many tumors to count” and “cannot rule out metastasis”. Whatever it was it was aggressive. However, absent a biopsy they wouldn’t know where it started. The doctor mentioned treatment and my mom immediately said she didn’t want it.

I fell to my knees.

Mom and her best friend Lenora.

This is something that she had made clear months ago in conversation after another family passed away from cancer. But not something you want to actually hear for real. I’ve already lost one parent. Now, I’m going to lose another.

Mom and Dad at their wedding February 19th, 1977.

The doctor asked her to at least consider a biopsy. If anything for me, her daughter, and her granddaughters, especially since the cancer was in her breast. Mom said she would think about it, which was also crushing but at the same time I respected that it was her body and her decision. Before the call needed, she asked that I not tell anyone except a distinct few.

What do we do next?

The rest of the night mom and I text back and forth since she was in the hospital trying to get discharged home. Court and I talked a lot to the girls. They were a lot younger when we went through this with my dad and they don’t remember much. They’ll remember this one for sure. I made arrangements and flew to Ohio a day later to be with her.

Mom, Dad and I when I was three.

When I got to her house I gave her the biggest hug and we talked. To know my mom and I is to know that we are extremely close. Through my blogging, although she wasn’t a fan of me leaving my government job, she was one of my biggest supporters and fans. There were lots of tears, mostly from me because like my mom always said, I am quite the drama queen. We had our moments of laughter and I had the opportunity to apologize for anything I have ever done to ever hurt or upset her, and she did the same for me. Then once we got through all the mushy stuff, we got down to business.

My mom was very organized.

After my dad passed away, my mom took time to make sure she had everything in place for me since I’m an only child. Anything that could be transfer on death (TOD) or paid on death (POD) she did so I could try to avoid Probate Court to settle the estate. In the course of the conversation, she told me about all her accounts, who to talk to about certain things, and where everything was in the house that I would need. In her true mom fashion, she was still taking care of me.

Mom’s 30th birthday.

All I could do was look at her and see one of the bravest women I know, facing the end of her 62 years with such grace and dignity. Mom was a hard worker, loyal friend, and devoted military wife. Throughout my dad’s military career and absences due to schools and training, that’s where mom and I forged our close relationship. It was just her and I for long stretches of time. It took her several years after dad passed before she found her wings and took off on pretty big adventures. I asked if there was anything she wanted to do, anything she wanted to see. I wasn’t surprised when she said no, because she had seen everything she ever wanted.

Mom and Dad at their new home in 1998.

Over the next day there were signs that her body was retaining fluid and I took her up to The James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, OH. It was there they discovered her kidneys were failing and she was in fact retaining a lot of fluid. (She had gained 30 pounds in a week.) She finally did agree to have a biopsy because despite all the blood tests, we didn’t have a confirmation of cancer, you need tissue.

We’ve been down this road before.

Sitting in the hospital with mom that week, it showed up on my Facebook memories that SAME week 8 years ago, we were in the hospital with my dad. My mom had taken my dad to the ER because his leg swelled up. Blood tests showed his liver panel was off the charts, just like hers. After a battery of tests, a week in the hospital… his diagnosis: small cell carcinoma of the lung with metastasis to the adrenal glands and liver. With treatment he lived 14 months, passing away a week before his 58th birthday in 2012. This time, we had no idea what we were facing since mom didn’t want treatment.

Courtney and my wedding June 19th, 2004.

Once I got her discharged, I made arrangements to get her in to her primary care doctor the following week. I flew home Friday, March 22nd, and flew back that Sunday with my girls so they could see my mom. I knew that this most likely would be the last time they would see her and I explained that to them. Yet I still held onto the hope that maybe, just maybe, she could see them again soon.

No one expected the rapid changes.

Even in the two days I was gone, it was evident that things were changing rapidly. She had gained more weight, her color was changing, and even her eyes were yellow from the liver damage. She wasn’t eating and barely drinking. I got her into the doctor on Wednesday, March 27th and we discussed Hospice services. Later that day the hospital called with the biopsy results confirming the cancer had started in her breast. My mom admitted it had been a few years since her last mammogram.

Great Aunt Mary, Mom, Aunt Tammy, and I at my high school graduation.

The girls and I flew home Thursday March 28th, two weeks after this whole journey had started. Over the next few days I could tell that things were continuing to change. Her speech was slurring and her thoughts weren’t together.

By that Tuesday, April 2nd, she had taken a turn.

I talked to her that morning, but she seemed even more tired and a little confused. Her friend tried to visit her that afternoon, but mom didn’t answer the door. Another friend tried to stop by and call her, but my mom refused to answer the door again and couldn’t talk on the phone. They called me, I told them to call the ambulance, and I jumped on the first flight back to Ohio.

Hospice is like having angels on earth.

The day before on that Monday, Hospice had their first visit with mom. But that Tuesday she told them she wasn’t feeling well and told them not to come. By the time I got to mom it was 1:30am Wednesday and her best friend, Lenora, waited for me to tell me what happened with the ambulance. When they finally got to her that evening, mom was lucid enough to tell them to call Hospice. The Hospice nurse came to evaluate mom and said they would be back again on Wednesday. After Lenora left I watched mom sleep peacefully, but then some time in the middle of the night, she changed. She tried to get up several times and I could tell she had no strength to do it on her own. Mom would look at me and all she could say was “I’m fine”, when clearly, she was not.

Thanksgiving 2016

By Wednesday, April 3rd morning day break, I touched base with her Hospice nurse who came by that afternoon. After evaluating mom, the nurse was honest and said it was only a matter of days. She brought in a kit with medication to help with keeping my mom comfortable as she “transitioned”. The nurse gave me instructions on what they were and what to do should I decide it was time to use them.

By this point my mom’s best friend Lenora, my aunt Tammy, my great aunt Mary, and my two friends Joni and Tiara were there in the house with me. It was then I decided it was time to tell people that mom’s time on earth was coming to an end.

Time is not promised.

The rest of Wednesday family and friends stopped by to say their respects. Everyone was shocked since no one knew she was sick, but it was mom’s wishes to keep things private. Mom said she was at peace, kept saying: “it is what it is,” and she didn’t want people to feel sorry for her.

That night I called the on-call Hospice nurse because mom was starting to struggle. Before the nurse left she hugged me, and said mom only had about 48-24 hours.

The afternoon of Thursday April 4th, the Hospice nurse came to visit and it was during her visit I noticed the time had come. Surrounded by me, my aunt, my great aunt, her best friend, and my friend Bonnie, we told my mom we loved her and held her hand. Three weeks to the day we found out anything was wrong, mom was gone.

My ultimate best friend. My hero. Gone.

Moving forward

If there’s anything that I’ve learned from losing my dad, and now my mom, there is no life returning to normal, there is only moving forward. Life has forever changed and the people responsible for my very existence on this earth are gone. It’s now about honoring their legacy. Learning a new way to live without their guidance here on earth, but instead with all the things they instilled within me over my lifetime.

Mom on one of her many adventures.

Since my dad’s passing I’ve always said that our time on this earth is so precious and very unpredictable. With my mom’s passing, it just further confirms how truly unpredictable life can be. They both died young and to be perfectly honest, it scares me. I don’t take it for granted that I had three weeks with her, because I know people who had less or even no notice. It’s still hard to wrap my head around no matter how much paperwork I fill out, how many phone calls I make, how many death certificates I give out. It just doesn’t seem real.

What’s next?

Writing for me has always been therapeutic, but blogging has been a way for me to use my experiences to help other people. My plan is to share with you my journey. There’s a lot more that comes after someone passes and since I’m an only child, it mostly falls on me. My mom did a lot to make things “easier” on me for her estate. However, there is still a lot that needs to be done. The last thing that you want when you’re going through a heartbreaking experience, is to have surprises pop up along the way. My hope is that I can help you to open up that dialogue with your loved ones and have those tough, but necessary, conversations. Ignorance is not bliss.

In the mean time, if I can pass anything on right now it’s this… Love your people hard and make as many memories with them as possible. Get your freaking mammograms ladies, please stop smoking, and please don’t play doctor. I know you don’t want to freak out about things and turn into a hypochondriac, so at least get a yearly physical and blood work. Prevention and early detection are key. There are people who love you that would completely agree. Trust me.

XOXO,
Brooke

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6 Comments

  1. This is so well written. She is so proud of you as am I 💗. I miss her every day and I am crying right now now .

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss Brooke. My thoughts go to you and your family. Sending hugs to you my friend, and please let me know if you need anything or if there is anything I can do.

  3. I am really sorry for your loss. Your mom sounds like an amazing and strong woman. Someone who lived with no regrets. Someone who knew love. Thank you for sharing your story. I am guilty of what you advise against. So your work, your passion, is heard.

    1. Thank you Kelli, I am hoping that by sharing her story and mine, I can help at least one person take a look at what we can all do to live longer and healthier lives.

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