4 years ago today, my world was turned upside down. 4 years ago today I heard the dreaded word that sends fear jolting through even the bravest person. Cancer.
I lived in Arizona at the time, thousands of miles away from my family in the Midwest. I was teaching school, a newlywed of just under a year and extremely happy. It was the second to last day of school and I was looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation.
This particular day I happened to leave my cell phone in my car and after school I found that I had an unusually large amount of text messages and voice mails. Through the messages I found out the vague information that something had happened to my mom and she was transported to a hospital 1 1/2 from our hometown. I grew up in a small town, but there was a hospital. I knew that if she was transported, that meant it was serious, more than the small hospital could handle.
When I talked to one of my older brothers I wasn’t given too much specific information. All he knew was that she was having some issues getting dressed that morning and they think she may have had a stroke. My heart sank. Her father had died in his fifties from complications brought on by multiple strokes. My mom was fifty-five at the time.
Somehow I made the drive home from school, but there was nothing for me to do but wait. I talked to my two brothers multiple times, one of whom had made the trip to the hospital to be with my parents, but wasn’t given any more specific information.
Then, much later that evening, I got a call from my mom’s sister. Aunt Mary informed me that it wasn’t a stroke after all. What had caused my mom the trouble getting dressed was in fact a brain tumor that was causing her brain to swell. She would need brain surgery as soon as possible. They also found a mass on her lung. This was cancer.
I fell to my knees and the only word that could escape my lips was “No.” No, no, no. Not cancer. Not my family. No.
Through the ringing in my ears and the thick fog that seemed to be developing around me, I heard my aunt say, “She needs you here.”
I was on a plane the next morning. Tim came with me, but his ticket was only for a few days. Mine was a one-way ticket. I had no idea how long I’d stay, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave my mom’s side in just a few days.
The days that followed are almost a blur to me now. The more we learned about her cancer, the scarier life became. Her officially diagnosis was stage IV lung cancer with metastasis to her brain. They would operate to remove the tumor from her brain, but the doctors were never reassuring. They never gave us an inkling of hope to which we could grasp.
When I was asking one doctor in particular a question, she answered, “You understand that her cancer isn’t curable. We are only operating on her brain tumor to improve her quality of life. The tumor on her lung is inoperable.”
My answer was, “We’ll be getting a second opinion on that.”
Despite the prognosis given to stage IV lung cancer patients, there was never a moment that I didn’t think my mom could beat it. I never accepted that she would be one of the statistics.
The average survival time for a stage IV lung patient is 8 months with a longer survival rate that hovers only between 5-10%. I’m not going to lie and say that those numbers didn’t knock the wind out of me. But once I caught my breath, I filled myself with only positive thoughts. Someone had to be in the 5-10%. Why not my mom?
She had her brain surgery the next day. By the grace of God, this hospital was home to one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons. He was able to take out the entire tumor and told us she was lucky that it was an encased tumor and not the type that spider-webbed to surrounding areas.
We were surprised at how easy the recovery was from brain surgery. To enter the brain, there’s no muscle to go through, so there’s not the same type of pain that comes with other surgeries. She was ready to be discharged just two days later.
Her assigned oncologist suggested that she get whole brain radiation just in case there were tiny cancer cells floating around in her brain followed by chemotherapy to attack the tumor in her lung. Instead, we decided to go to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis for a second opinion.
I decided I would stay as long as I could to help my parents. I was on my summer vacation from teaching, after all, and my dad had to balance caring for my mom with running their small businesses. My two brothers had regular jobs, children, and couldn’t be away the way I could.
There was a two week wait before we could get into the Mayo Clinic. During this time we tried to help my mom focus on other things, but that’s not easy to do when you have a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis hanging over your head.
She would say things like, “You don’t have any kids yet, Maryea, I need to make it long enough to see you have a baby.”
And I would answer, “Mom, you’re going to live long enough to see my kids’ weddings.”
It wasn’t that I wanted to instill false hope in her. I really believed it. There was something deep inside me that said she would survive this. She had to.
The Mayo Clinic was amazing. Compared to the last hospital we’d been at, everything was so smooth and organized. I knew we’d come to the right place. The doctor we were seeing knew we’d come for a second opinion. The first thing he said to us was, “The tumor is operable. I suggest a lobectomy followed by whole brain radiation and chemotherapy.”
To hear the word “operable” was like hearing God directly answer our prayers. That was what we’d been praying so hard for. Let it be operable. Let them be able to take the cancer out.
Two days later, Mom was back on the operating table. After the surgery, we were again told that the surgeon was able to remove the whole tumor and he didn’t think there was any remaining cancer. I can’t do justice to this moment by putting it into words. This doctor even mentioned the word “cure”. It was incredible.
After the elation of being able to operate and the news of the doctor being able to remove all the cancer, there was the recovery. The recovery after lung surgery makes the recovery after brain surgery look like a walk in the park.
There was intense pain; my mom said it was worse than anything she’d ever felt. She’s a tough woman, but it was clear she was in agony. Even though she had an epidural and was able to control its level with a hand pump, there didn’t seem to be enough relief.
Through it all, I stayed at her side, trying to take her mind off the pain with funny stories or by reading her the comments from friends and family on the Caring Bridge website we’d set up. She stayed in the hospital over a week after the surgery.
During that week, I spent a lot of time in hospital’s chapel, praying. Every day I’d pray for her healing and that she’d be cured. I prayed that God would let us keep her longer. I’d never prayed so fervently in my life.
I stayed with my mom for a total of 5 weeks that summer, making it back to Arizona just in time to celebrate my 1 year anniversary with Tim. I’d lost 10 pounds even though I didn’t exercise one day while I was there.
Even though her surgeries were behind her, even more grueling treatments were ahead. She had to endure whole brain radiation and chemotherapy, all done “just in case” there were any cancer cells left in her body. The doctors called it an insurance policy.
Although there are long-term side effects my mom still deals with, she is alive today. She is among the few people who can call herself a four year stage IV lung cancer survivor. I could not be more proud of her. I fully expect that she will live to see my kids’ weddings, just like I told her before we went to the Mayo Clinic.
I love you, Mom.