My hope in putting this article out here, is that it brings you peace, and if you are not going through this journey, and simply joining me for a story – that it serves as an inspiration for you to live life to the fullest *and* to stop worrying about stress & your sweet baby inside of you.
First, a brief background, my mum was diagnosed out of the blue with Non small-cell Stage IV Lung Cancer. My mum was a vibrant, big personality, in love with life, travelling the world, a successful realtor. It was a huge, surprising shock to all of us. She was given just a few months, but crushed it at chemotherapy and continued living it up, travelling, knowing that she had limited time.
In the new year of 2013 two things happened at the same time. She found out the cancer had metastasized to her brain and I found out I was pregnant.
11 months of fighting lung cancer successfully stepped up a notch. Multiple brain tumours meant aggressive radiation and continued chemo on the lungs. The cancer took on a nastier profile, going from coughing, to nausea, personality changes and dizziness in my mum.
As I settled into a tough pregnancy (severe morning sickness until month 8) I also settled into a primary cancer caregiver role.
It probably sounds like the worst fucking thing anybody could ever experience. Hyperemesis on its own is pretty shit. So is your mum dying.
But let me tell you, I learnt about the power and resiliency of the human spirit during this time. Here’s what I learnt from those dark 6 months.
No matter how bad it gets, you never lose your sense of humour. You are going to laugh during the bleakest moments of this human experience and in fact, your sense of humour increases.
One day, after a chemo session, we were driving on the highway home. We’d both been craving salty chips for our gross stomachs that day. Sadly, it was a bit too late for me. Feeling my lunch coming back up, I had to swing off of the highway onto the shoulder and let lunch fly out of the window. As I turned around in my seat, wiping my mouth with a tissue I saw my mum hanging her head out of the window too, letting her snack go in all of her post-chemo glory. When she finished, we took one look at each other and started laughing HYSTERICALLY. Like, leaning over the steering wheel hysterical laughter, tears streaming down our face.
And again, during a bleak, horrible moment, picking out my Mum’s own coffin for the cremation. Really awful, right? Waddling around, 7 months pregnant at that point, aghast at the blazing glory of 4 foot angels with glowing eyes, wooden boxes and outrageously ornate vases. Done. I lost it.
I had to sit down on the floor and just laugh my ass off, I couldn’t even make eye contact with the lazer-cut angel with glowing eyes. I couldn’t imagine my Mum’s remains going into that one without belly laughter. I almost wanted to pick it out because my Mum, with her wickedly dark sense of British humour would have been on the floor laughing too.
The poor solemn funeral home assistant could do nothing except watch me with genuine concern on his face.
Therapy is excellent.
I should probably add that I was doing regular therapy with a psychologist to get me through this shit storm of a stage in life. I started with my psychologist way back at the initial diagnosis to make sure I processed everything in a healthy way and because I had horrible insomnia for about 6 months.
I signed up for more sessions when I found when I was pregnant and wasn’t sure about that whole motherhood thing. Then, when the cancer metastisized I was like, shit, I’ll probably just keep going for a few years (I still do it.)
Therapy isn’t just about helping you when you’re fucked up, it’s also about enhancing you when you are doing well! Therapy can give you the tools not only to get through rough times, but also live a great life. I found mindfulness based approaches excellent.
I also read a lot of books. Self help books are like immersing yourself into the author’s own brain and getting you out of your own thinking patterns.
Cancer Caregiving is one of the Greatest Leadership Development Experiences
As a cancer caregiver, its almost like you are thrown into a fast-paced MBA in leadership and in the entire process, somehow you find a renewed sense of self-confidence. So many people speak of developing their leadership skills gradually through their career and training. But leadership skill development can come via unexpected routes as well. I learnt this first hand.
All of a sudden you are dealing with very complex medical information, the need to research, communicate with a medical team, consult and then build support around the people impacted by those major decisions. You have to assist others (extended family and friends of the patient) with their own morale and without even knowing it, you find yourself setting an example and in a position of people looking to you for guidance.
In one of the final consultations where we decided to discontinue all forms of cancer treatment and go for palliative medicine & care, the reactions among my Mum’s network were extremely mixed. I had to be okay and understand that each person would deal with this news in a different way, and it had nothing to do with me. Just their perception of events. Some fell apart, some were stoic, some disappeared, some rallied. I really had to work on not judging others’ reactions. They were all entitled to however they processed it. A core piece of leadership is understanding your own handling of things.
As a cancer care giver, you find yourself judging things with a different baseline, and it alters the way you see people events and things (we all this shifting the observer in the coaching world.) Nobody prepared me for how irritated I’d be with people who complained about mundane things, especially if I’d just left hospital and was dealing with a gas station attendant complaining. I just wanted to unleash a lot of days.
You have huge decisions laid in your lap, which, in the moment, you simply deal with (I remember sitting in Starbucks one morning signing my mum’s resuscitation orders – I look back on that now and think whoa.)
Naturally, you will find that you step into a strong decision-making role where you must consult with medical staff, make decisions and communicate them to others calmly and confidently. Necessity is the mother of invention, and out of necessity you gain this leadership.
On my lunch breaks at work, I’d manage a large google document managing my mum’s medicine, chemo, radiation schedules and who was driving to / from the hospital and providing meals / care / assistance. This is such a huge, complex part of cancer care giving – this part was really a part time job in itself.
Planning was not my strongest suit, but I became damn good at it from that point onward.
The Entire Experience Provides a Perspective on Other Events in Life
Each moment of the cancer caregiving experience has given me a valuable “other perspective” – it really is a silver lining.
To experience cancer caregiving is to have a beautiful new anchor in your life.
Nothing, nothing will ever seem like too much of a big deal, too much of a bother as you go forward in your life.
After dealing with such profound humanity, grief, sadness, happiness, such an intensified form of what we call the “human experience,” nothing will shake your core.
You will develop a deep ground well of strength from which you will be able to draw, every single moment of your future life.
My mum passed a few days into my 3rd trimester, after getting to see my little daughter on the ultrasound via face time (shoutout to EFW Radiology on that one) and naming her.)
My last few days with my mum were painting her nails sparkly blue, listening to the chaplain playing beautiful Rod Stewart tunes on the guitar, and having some champagne. The beauty of palliative care is after the busyness of “doing” and all of the cancer care giving, you get to shift to a place of “being.” Sitting in peace, and stillness and enjoying each others’ company.
To all of you on a similar journey, I salute you, honour you and tell you from my laptop here that there are silver linings in all of this. Much love. xo