My mom has cancer now. I say “now” because six months ago my brother had cancer. He was lucky. He had thyroid cancer, which everyone says is the good cancer. They cut out his thyroid and some lymph nodes. Then three days of solitary confinement after swallowing radioactive iodine and he was cured.
Friday was my mom’s first round of chemo. My brother showed up at 8 a.m. with a piece of his blue blanket, for luck. Later, she showed me the threads and I recognized it right away — the blanket he slept with as a kid.
When I got to the chemo center, my mom still had hours to go, so we sat. Elizabeth, the chemo nurse, checked her needle. She changed my mom’s IV bag three times. She looked over at me and remarked on how much I look like my brother. To my mom, she said, “You’re lucky. You’re lucky to have your children here.”
My mom said, “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.” She pointed to the chemo line. “This, though, is a different kind of luck. This is bad luck.”
First Oncology Visit After a Week in the Hospital
The man at the security counter asked to see my mom’s ID. He asked for her date of birth. The woman at the check-in counter asked my mom’s name, address, and date of birth. The nurse asked what medications she was taking. When she asked, “What’s your date of birth?” my mom said, “They ask my date of birth so many damn times, more than they ask, ‘How’d you like me to treat that rash on your ass.’”
The nurse gave us granola bars before we saw the doctor. She said, “You might get hungry. He takes his time.” The doctor sat with a notepad while my mom told him everything she could remember about her 78-year medical history, up to the week-long hospital visit she had just experienced. She complained about the lack of care. “I had to beg for a wipe down,” she said, and the conversation moved to the state of affairs for residents and nurses.
We were two hours in at this point and I was on edge waiting to hear when she might die.
The doctor told us that residents used to work 36-hour shifts, but now, after a woman named Libby Zion died because of alleged bad care due to exhaustion, shifts can’t be longer than 24 hours. He said that because of shorter shifts, interns no longer get attached to their patients and therefore no one takes responsibility for anyone’s care.
At the three-hour mark, he said we still didn’t know exactly what kind of cancer we were looking at. The cells appeared to be a gynecological cancer. His lab was taking a second look.
We walked out giddy. The doctor was so relaxed, we both thought this cancer couldn’t be that bad.
My mom’s cancer is primary peritoneal, which acts like ovarian. Dr. Slomovitz said it was serious. Then he said he was optimistic. “Ninety percent respond to treatment. Seventy percent have a recurrence in 18 months. Thirty percent are cured forever.”
Are these good odds?
He eyeballed my mom’s chart, then eyeballed her. He said, “You’re a healthy woman.”
She said, “Why do you think I’m healthy?”
He didn’t say.
As we walked out she said, “What makes him say I’m healthy?”
“I don’t know. You look healthy?”
My friend whose daughter’s in medical school says medically you’re healthy if you don’t have heart disease or diabetes.
Healthy is relative. My mom is 78 years old. She doesn’t have heart disease or diabetes. She has cancer.
Six rounds of chemo, three weeks apart.
I always want to know how people find their cancer. For a couple of weeks, my mom had been having trouble breathing. Still, she went to her art class and took my son to a movie. She went to her primary doctor who told her she had a pulled muscle. I said, “You don’t have any muscles.”
She said, “I told the doctor the same thing, but apparently you don’t need muscles to pull one.”
A week later, she fell and thought she cracked her tail bone so she took herself to urgent care. They took one look at an x-ray of her lungs and sent her to the hospital. She had a pleural effusion, which means fluid buildup outside of the lung. She had a lot of fluid, which they tapped twice. The first time the nurse did not play it cool. He held up a bottle that looked like a gallon jug of grade A dark maple syrup and said, “Woah, this is a lot.”
After a pet scan, an MRI, and seven weeks of waiting, they found cancer cells in the fluid.
Stages of Grief
Before starting chemo, my mom went in for another tap. The appointment was at nine, but my mom doesn’t like to wake up early, so she asked to come in later. The tech gave her a half hour.
She told me she was going through the stages of grief. “I’ve passed denial. I think now I’m in bargaining, but I’m not sure who to bargain with.”
I said, “You bargained with the tech person.”
Old Lady Color
The day before chemo, my mom and I went to a luncheon. She wore a salmon colored jacket, which I wouldn’t mind on someone else, but salmon was the color her mother wore. I loved my grandma, but I associate salmon with old people.
My mom told me when she went to the bathroom and washed her hands, she saw her mother in the mirror. I didn’t say I saw her too.
She said, “My mother died at eighty.”
We both knew that meant barely two years.
My neighbor, walking his dog, asked about my mom. When I told him it was primary peritoneal, he gave me this thoughtful look like he really knew cancer, or maybe I put that on him because I’m desperate for someone to know something. All he said was, “How is her attitude?”
Everyone says attitude is the most important thing. If that’s true, we’re doomed.
My mom’s attitude is real. She has cancer and she’s scared. I would hate it if she suddenly became sunny. Instead, every time I talk to her she tells me what she’s afraid of like losing her hair and mouth sores. She told me some people get mouth sores so bad, they can’t swallow. She told me about the mouth sores twice. The second time she mentioned butt and vagina sores too, which she immediately admitted she made up and we both laughed. Turns out, butt and vagina sores are a possible chemo side effect.
People say a lot of stupid things when they hear about cancer. Twice this week, I’ve heard, “You have to be positive.”
Ellen Kaplan, a friend who’s known my mom for 35 years, held my mom’s hands and said, “You’re a strong woman.”
My mom said, “Actually, I’m really a pussy.”
Ellen said, “You were a feminist when it was women’s lib.”
My mom said, “How’s that gonna help with the chemo?”
Ellen said, “You know, admitting your weakness is really strong.”
That was the smartest thing I’ve heard yet.
The nurse practitioner gave my mom and me her card with her cell number. She said, “You can text me any time.” I was floored. Really? How generous!
I said, “What might we text you about?” I know my capacity to be pushy or to ask for what I want. I didn’t want to take advantage. I wanted to know the parameters.
She said, “For example, text me if your mother’s still constipated after the Colace and Milk of Magnesia.”
On the night after chemo round one, my mom’s face and neck looked red like she’d spent the day on a boat. We searched through the literature, which said flushing is normal, but contact the doctor if you develop a rash.
I asked if it itched and as soon as I asked, it started to itch. So, I texted our nurse practitioner. I didn’t hear back and the next day, Sunday, I checked to make sure I texted the right number. I had.
On Monday morning I got a text: “I apologize for not responding sooner. My phone is off at 5 p.m. and on weekends.”
I texted back: “I wish you had told us you were off duty after five. I felt very disheartened we didn’t get an answer. We’re extremely nervous, as you can imagine.”
I read the text messages to my wife. I’m not sure why because I had already sent it. She said, “Why’d you do that? We need that woman on our side. No one wants to be told they made a mistake.”
When I told my mom about the text she thanked me. She said, “She fucking misled us.”
I’m still mad. I know it’s because I need to be mad at someone.
My mom has a rash now — red blotches on her upper arms and thighs. She called the nurse practitioner during business hours. The nurse asked if she changed her detergent.
I laughed so hard when my mom told me that. When I calmed down I said, “My guess is the rash is caused by the poison they dripped into your vein.”
My mom said, “Yeah, that’s my guess.”
My mom said, “Today I woke up with this thought: Why do I think I’m so important that I have to go through all of this to extend my life for who knows how many years?” Then she listed all these people she knew who died young. She keeps a dead list. It’s 182 people long.
I made brownies out of a mix and licked the bowl like I’m pre-menstrual. I needed chocolate. I’m peri-menopausal now and I’m worried that unlike being pre-menstrual, when in a day or two I’d get my period and stop daydreaming about chocolate, this is my permanent condition.
My mom is in pain. All her bones and joints hurt. Since chemo she wakes up throughout the night with shooting pain in her foot. She counts the duration of each — 10 seconds, 14, 9. She described the pain as stabbings with a hot icepick. She said, “I’m afraid this is my permanent condition.”
I remember being 20 weeks pregnant, doubled over in pain. I thought I was in labor. I thought maybe this was what contractions felt like. My insides hurt so bad I threw up then passed out. I thought I wouldn’t make it 20 more weeks to full term if that became my permanent condition.
Turns out, I was constipated. Warm prune juice and Milk of Magnesia saved me.
I told my mom this story. She told me she’s not interested in other people’s war stories, but I told her anyway because I really think she doesn’t know what’s to come. Like pregnancy, motherhood, chemo, life…there are no permanent conditions. Well, except death.
This is a hard one to post because it’s about my mom, but it’s all I’m thinking about and she said I could. This is №48 of my #weeklyessay challenge. I have two to go.