Death, Dying, and Dealing with It
Three years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be contributing to a blog about end of life. I was a new mom, focused on reading parenting books and blogs—thinking about the beginning of life, not the end. My husband, son, and I had a comfortable, happy life in Philadelphia, and enjoyed having much of our family nearby in Washington, DC and New York. We were like most new families: stumbling along trying to figure out how to be good parents and how to still be good to ourselves, each other, our friends and our families despite our new responsibilities. Death was the last thing on my mind.
But during the summer of 2009, before my son turned one year old, my mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. At first it seemed like no big deal. My mom was otherwise healthy. She was weeks before her seventieth birthday, and barely looked sixty. While not one to exercise a lot, she was very active and naturally svelte. We all assumed that with a couple of weeks of antibiotics she’d be back to her old self in no time.
I got the first inklings that something wasn’t right when I visited her at the hospital and there was some talk about the antibiotics not working. After chest x-rays and switching antibiotics, they decided to drain some fluid from her lungs and send her home with oxygen, new antibiotics, and a follow-up appointment for a CT scan. A week later, back home in Philly, I got a call from my dad: my mom didn’t have pneumonia. She had lung cancer. Stage IV adenocarcinoma.
I knew nothing about adenocarcinoma, but I knew that Stage IV was bad. Even before talking to a doctor, I knew that this was the beginning of the end, that the end couldn’t be too far away, and that it would probably be pretty ugly. My mom didn’t want to know anything about her chances of survival, but my brother—who lived near my parents in DC—and I wanted to know everything. My dad was caught somewhere in the middle: he wanted to be informed, but like my mom, he wasn’t ready to hear that the end was near. My mom suggested that my brother and I talk to the doctor without her and ask whatever questions we wanted. Between her doctor and our own research, here’s what we learned: there’s no cure, the best you can do is keep the disease in check with chemo (often called “palliative chemo”) and that about 99% of those diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma do not survive 18 months.
Amazingly, my mom fell into that other 1% of cases: she didn’t die right away. She beat everyone’s expectations and almost made it to the two-year mark. But four months before she passed away, in a cruel twist of fate, I was diagnosed with my own cancer.
In January 2012, I became pregnant, and we began hoping that my mom would be around long enough to meet our second child. Instead of having a child though, I suffered a miscarriage and was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy—a rare condition in which the placenta grows irregularly and becomes tumorous. Most often a molar pregnancy can be resolved just with surgery, but two months later I found out that I was in the unlucky minority for whom it turns into cancer. You read that right. Instead of having a baby, I got cancer.
So here I am, a year later, newly cancer-free and without my mom, doing something I’d never imagined doing: telling the story of this insanity on a blog about death, dying, and dealing with it. Over the next few months, I’ll shed more light on my mother’s decline and death, my own struggle with facing mortality, and what it’s been like trying to maintain some semblance of sanity throughout. I’ve been through it all, and hopefully by sharing it, we can learn from each other.