December 16th, 2009
This post is personal—as personal as it gets. For the next weeks and months, I will be writing periodically about my mother’s experience with a cancer diagnosis. I won’t be going into a lot of medical detail, but I certainly understand if most of you—colleagues, friends, family members, and strangers—want to skip this stuff. We’re cool.
My mother’s biopsy was yesterday. A routine one-hour procedure turned into a rough five-hour surgery followed by time in the ICU. I spoke with her this morning for the first time since she went in, and she’s her fabulous self, but she sounds like she’s been hit by a truck. My stepdad is the best guy in the world for the job of holding everything together and keeping on top of the perpetually delayed pain medication. I couldn’t be more grateful to him.
The diagnosis came in last night, and it’s quite bad, apparently: thymoma (that’s a tumor that began in the thyroid) that is invasive, malignant, and inoperable—inoperable because it’s wrapped around major blood vessels. Since surgical removal is the treatment of choice for this type of cancer (and bumps ten-year survival rates from 12% to almost 50%), the inoperable part is the worst of the bad news, though we’d had a warning of that part after the very first scan. Once she’s out of hospital, I’ll want additional opinions, since the literature suggests that radiation treatment can sometimes shrink these tumors enough to make them operable.
In the interim, my mother’s New-Agey-yet-has-an-MD doctor seems to have brought her around to the possibility of conventional medical treatments, which is a huge step. I’m a science-and-logic kinda girl, and it was quite difficult for me to hear Mom’s first reaction to the initial diagnosis three weeks ago, which was a complete refusal of conventional medical treatment. But what she needs from me is complete support of her choices and beliefs; if I can provide that, I can be a useful part of her support team, whereas if I were to lobby aggressively for conventional treatment, I’d only add stress and push her further from those options. It’s hard, but it’s the right thing. (I’m no fan of chemo and radiation therapy—we’re obviously still talking wigs and leeches here—but it’s what we have, and her holistic physician has suggested some adjunct treatments to ease the effects on the body of these scorched-earth options.)
Through all of this stuff, my mother demonstrates an extraordinary sense of calm and optimism that I’ve only associated with people who’ve spent years in intensive, contemplative spiritual practice. And it wasn’t always like this. My mother was wrenchingly unhappy for much of my childhood, and the changes I’ve seen in her approach to life in the last 15 years or so are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Years of meditation and woo-inflected but CBT-style emotional re-tuning have transformed her experience of the world, and her sense of humor, her love for others, and her powerful long-term optimism have completely overtaken the bouts of rage and depression and misanthropy that haunted her for so many years.
I cannot think of anyone better emotionally prepared to deal with this than my mother. All I can do is try to let go of the grief and worry so that I can support her and honor her example. So that’s what I’m working on now. Thanks times a bejillion to all of you who have sent messages of love and support. I don’t entirely understand why it helps, but it really does.