When My Mother Was Diagnosed With Cancer, Our Whole Dynamic Changed
March 12, 2019, will be a day I will never forget. No, it wasn’t a graduation, a wedding, or the birth of a new child; it was the day that four words turned my entire family’s world upside down.
It all started off routinely enough with my mom’s visit to her doctor’s office for routine bloodwork. Granted, in the days leading up to it all, there was something that wasn’t quite right. I’d stopped at my parents’ house to check on her after my dad and sister said she’d been out of sorts. She wouldn’t talk; just smile, nod, and cry.
A nervous breakdown? A midlife crisis? I had absolutely no idea. All I knew was that the woman who had taken care of me my entire life needed to be taken care of. I made her breakfast, stayed with her while she ate, kissed her forehead, told her to call me if she needed anything, and headed out the door to work.
The next day at her appointment, her vitals were out of whack, and her blood work was off the charts. Clearly, something was wrong — we just didn’t know how wrong it was. When the doctor came in and told us that she had Stage IV CNS (Central Nervous System) Lymphoma, in an instant, everything changed.
Stage IV cancer of any type is just as bad as it sounds. In truth, it was an absolute miracle that my mom is still with us today. To make a long story short, during the first year after her diagnosis, she spent several months of treatment at a hospital that specialized in this type of cancer. For months it was touch and go. Weeks on end with her on a ventilator, not knowing if this was the end.
I was incredibly fortunate to work for an employer who allowed me to go fully remote. I was able to work from her bedside during the day while my brothers, sister, and father did their work as teachers, and while my daughters were at school.
For months I tried to find the balance between sitting at my mother’s bedside when my girls were in school and coming home and trying to live life as if the entire world wasn’t turned upside down. At the time, my girls were 7 and 5, so they were aware enough to know that something was wrong, but I was also able to shield them from some of the harder parts. The part like telling them about why they couldn’t go visit Grandma at the hospital. The part about why she couldn’t even get on FaceTime when she was getting her medicine.
But the one thing I couldn’t hide from them was the fact that they might not see her ever again.
While these conversations felt impossible at the moment, trying to keep them from the pain, fear, and uncertainty I faced every day did more harm than good. I was short-tempered and sleep-deprived and didn’t even practice the smallest acts of self-care like remembering to take mental health medication. I desperately tried to find the balance between being my mother’s daughter and my daughters’ mother.
As time went on and many months of treatment passed, I was there to help my mom learn to eat, drink, and walk again. But she was not the only one learning things vital to functioning in this world. During this period of cataclysmic change and transition, I learned that no matter how hard I tried to be the best mom, daughter, or sister, I had to take time to take care of myself.
I know it’s cliche to say, but there are no truer words than “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” By foregoing simple acts of self-care, I wasn’t in the best shape mentally, emotionally, or physically to help care for my mom — or to give a semblance of normalcy to my girls.
So for all the people out there who are moms, daughters, sisters, nieces, and more, give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Self care isn’t selfish, and it doesn’t make you a bad person to take time for yourself. As mothers and daughters, it’s easy to put everything and everyone above our own needs. And even though your aim is to help, more often than not, it doesn’t end up that way in the long run.
A point in time will come for all of us where we desperately seek the balance between being the best child to our parent and the best parent to our child, so please — take it from someone who has already lived it. Life happens, and dynamics change. The only certainty in this life is that you will not be able to prepare for or anticipate everything that gets thrown your way. And, that’s okay. At the end of the day, taking care of ourselves allows us to take better care of those we love the most.
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