Last week Jak and I sat with my mom during her fourth of six chemo concoctions — this is what I call her current treatment since she goes in for three hours and receives three different chemo drugs plus a dose of steroids. My only experience with chemo rooms is through TV and movies, imagining a sterile room with not a lot of privacy. The accommodations at my mom’s clinic were welcoming enough, but it is still hard to shake the rows of chairs, albiet comfy, lined with drugs on wheeled towers. The room was surrounded with large windows and plenty of warm sunshine, treats and beverages, but on this particular day, a rather vacant room. Besides my mom, there were a couple of patients and two nurses. Other than the two flatscreen TVs, Jak and I were the most youthful presence in the room.
At ten minutes to 10 a.m., Jak and I set up shop in a corner location while my mom received her latest blood counts. After the doctor’s okay to proceed, the nurse started my mom on her 30 minute steroid drip, followed by an hour of one chemo drug and then two half hours of two other chemo drugs. Her doctor warned her that while she has been feeling pretty well so far, treatments 4-6 really start to take a toll on the body — and told her to be prepared for it.
Over the next three hours, we chatted and played Scrabble (in which Jak and mom eventually had to concede to my inevitable win). A little after 1 p.m., my mom’s treatment was complete and we headed to lunch.
During her treatment, I asked her if she could feel the IV and she said no. A part of me always felt like you should be able to feel the poison course through you veins, but it is not the case. But then again, I always thought the chemo rooms would be cold sterile rooms where patients of all ages received treatment with blankets and books in hand. That was also not the case.
During her first bout of cancer I was young — eleven going on twelve — so I don’t really remember much, and what I do remember includes a mixture of emotions, sterile environments and her attempts to find comfort and humor in a terrible situation (if I ever complained of a bad hair day, she quickly corrected me and said, “It’s better than a no hair day!”) She often went to chemo treatment alone — my dad was working and even though my siblings weren’t young, I think my mom was trying to protect them. It was the summer before sixth grade and I had become really ill with mono, and since my mom was going through chemo treatments, I was not allowed to be near her. There are two things I remember most: that feeling of not being able to have your mom near you when you are sick, and the few times I could hear her cry in her bedroom and I couldn’t go near her to try to console her.
I don’t remember much else about that chemo summer; I slept through most of July and August. My mom would go to treatments and live in her bedroom. I remained in the living room. My dad would prepare mashed potatoes and soup for my mom and I before he left for work, leaving a thermos by my chair, and more in the fridge for my mom. He’d stop home or call around lunch to make sure we were both okay. Summer passed and I got better. I went to school and prayed for my mom every day during morning prayer (I went to a private Catholic school). My sixth grade teacher was a family friend and I always knew she was keeping an extra eye on me during those difficult months.
My mom’s breast cancer this time feels different. I am not sure I worry any more or any less — but watching a parent go through cancer affects you differently as an adult than as a child. I often relive the fear and concern I had as a child in my nieces and nephews, as they watch their grandma experience cancer and all the things that go with it: hair loss, doctors appointments, missing activities because she isn’t feeling well, and the overall fatigue that takes over her body. If anything, my heart aches for their tiny hearts and minds, knowing that they cannot fully comprehend everything that is happening.
Though one thing is the same as before; after defeating her first bout of breast cancer, I admired her strength, positivity and outlook on life. That is no different this time around.
My mom’s spirits continue to remain high. This last treatment did hit her a little harder than previous ones — a temperature and feeling more run down. She has two more chemo concoctions to go over the next six weeks, and then a treatment plan of one drug every three weeks for a year. An aggressive treatment for an aggressive cancer, they say.
My mom’s doctor says she is a good candidate for genetic testing, but right now she is focused on getting better and staying healthy. It might be smart for my family; if proven positive, we can take better precautions through higher quality screenings. But like anything, time will tell if that is a decision to make. In the meantime, I think each and every one of us say an extra “thank you” for being alive to experience life and all the things that go with it for one more day.