I’ll never forget the call that came on that blustery January evening in 1978. I came home from work to an empty house and had just started to get some dinner.
“Evelyn? This is Tyler Community Hospital’s second floor nurses’ station. Your mother is here.”
“She is? What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Can you come right away? Your father needs you,” was all she would say.
The twenty minute car ride to the hospital was as much a blur then as it is today. The mind races and the body tends to partially shut down at such ominous news. Compounding my panic was the simultaneous arrival of our priest at the elevator door, who knew even less about the situation. Moments later, my father’s tearful explanation told the unwelcome news.
A numbing experience
Before diagnostic tests were performed, my mother was projected to have advanced stage 3, possibly stage 4, colon cancer. There had been a total obstruction, which required that first a colostomy be performed. A second operation a few days later, after the area had calmed down from its duress, would involve the resection of several feet of large intestine. It was not known yet if the cancer had spread to any other organs and, because of the low proximity of the affected area, if the colostomy could be reversed.
Going into her room after this invasive and literally gut-wrenching surgery remains an eerie memory in the recesses of my mind. I had never before seen my mother so lifeless and flat on her back. With her hair stuck to her head and her lips parched and cracked, her soft whimpers spoke more clearly than the few garbled words she managed to utter – words that faded quickly back into her shrunken mouth. That image of my mother, so beaten down, told me it would be a long road to recovery, if there was one at all.
That first night of her battle with colon cancer, we, her family, were beaten down, too. The doctor’s prognosis – his worst case scenario – was anything but heartening. He said her case could be as bleak as a 5% chance of survival for one year. He suspected the cancer had spread; it usually had in cases like hers. Anything beyond that would be a gift. It was the kind of news that leaves you numb, that stops you in your tracks. It literally buckled my father at the knees.
The fog lifts
The day came for the second surgery. My mother bravely faced what the doctor said had to be done. She was not privy to the initial prognosis – only the general scenario. She knew she had cancer (given her symptoms, she suspected that’s what it was), and more details would be revealed after the resection. We all prayed for the best outcome under the most worrisome circumstances.
Just as learning of her condition left the mind swirling, so was the effect of hearing the doctor’s post-surgery words. They had taken out about three feet of large intestine surrounding the blockage and, amazingly enough, the tumor was contained – it had not burst through the colon wall! Tissue samples had been taken of the surrounding area and lymph nodes, and biopsies were done of the bladder and liver. We would have to wait for the results, but things were actually looking a bit more hopeful than when we first learned of her dreaded disease.
The journey begins
Good news that the cancer had not spread improved the prognosis considerably, but still my mother’s work was cut out for her. Her recuperation period in the hospital was about a week, and then months of chemotherapy were on the horizon as well as numerous periodic tests and blood work to keep track of whether or not the cancer had returned. The treatments alternated between our local hospital and a renowned cancer clinic a couple of hours away.
I thought that somebody like her, faced with all of this and no guarantees of remission, would feel downhearted, defeated even. Yet, she approached it as something that simply had to be done – as if it were her job, and mostly with her chin held high and an uncompromising wit.
I’m not saying my mother was a saint-on-earth; she had her bad days, too. There was a time when the nausea became so unyielding that the cancer threatened to take the upper hand. She was so sick that she questioned her will to go on with the treatments. She questioned their value versus the value of her life.
Rounding the turn
Fortunately, the colostomy was able to be reversed and, with medication, the nausea subsided. She was able to go on with the original plan her doctors had set forth. She made it through the often painful process of intravenous chemotherapy treatments; she bore the fatigue, the bruises, and the collapsed veins. We all watched her hair go from mousy brown to white.
On the outside, she looked only reminiscent of her former self – pale and down in weight. But, one had only to be in her company, to know the fiber of who she was, and soon that image was ushered away. Her spirit, her positive outlook, her faith, and her second chance at life took center stage of her existence.
Slow and steady
It has been 32 years since my mother’s journey through cancer began. It was not without its ups and downs, its challenges and unexpected turns – but it did not beat her, and she is still with us.
Today, she and we face a new ordeal: Alzheimer’s. It is daunting and disheartening, and a battle she will not win. Though she is again, and now always will be, only a reminiscence of her former self, there is still alive that spirit which so capably carried her through the disease of cancer, which would appear not once – but twice – in her lifetime. Yet, with her faith and her positive attitude, she managed to ride it out and keep the advantage.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.