Letting Go: A daughter’s struggle with breast cancer
For Carol, nothing was more important than family. She worked several jobs, most recently as a social worker in children’s services, but her favorite work was raising her four daughters and one son.
“Most of my childhood, she was a stay-at-home mom,” remembers her daughter, Marralee. “She took care of the kids and cleaned the house. Oh, and she was an excellent cook: peanut butter fudge, pies, big family dinners with homemade noodles. My mom and dad also loved to garden; we’d have fresh-grown food and sit-down family meals every night.”
When her husband passed away of a heart attack, Carol looked to her children for support. She loved her grandkids and enjoyed visiting family. She took vacations to Florida to visit two of her daughters who lived in Tampa and Miami. “My mom loved holidays and traditions. She missed my dad a lot, though. I think she thought about him every single day after he passed. It had been a few years since his passing when she got diagnosed,” remembers Marralee.
“Someone dropped the ball…When she went back for the next annual appointment, the mass had grown for an entire year.”
Carol went in for her yearly mammogram when she was 53. The doctor noticed a lump in her breast and asked a nurse to schedule a mammogram to make sure everything was alright. “Someone dropped the ball, and she didn’t know that he felt anything. When she went back for the next annual appointment, the mass had grown for an entire year. She had no idea that she needed a follow-up mammogram in the first place. No one had called her to schedule one.”
At 54, Carol had a biopsy and they concluded that it was, in fact, breast cancer. She would need to get one breast removed and go through radiation before the surgery. “Her initial reaction was shock. She kept saying, ‘I didn’t know. No one told me.’ My brother, sisters and I were angry. We didn’t understand how something like this could happen,” recalls Marralee.
Preparing for her surgery, Carol became very upset about the situation. She was feeling fine, so how could she be so sick? “I think when you’re waiting for something like that, you can’t help but think about all the negative outcomes. My siblings and I tried to be optimistic about it. You have to think positive, so that you can just get through it.”
Carol underwent chemotherapy after the surgery to make sure the cancer was gone. “The doctors told her she was free and clear. She just needed to come back for regular check-ups to make sure that it didn’t come back.”
“None of the treatments or medicine eased the pain. The doctor decided to do an MRI.”
After this news, Carol returned to her job in social services. About a year later, she began having severe back pain. Not thinking anything of it, she went to a chiropractor to get it checked out. “She couldn’t sleep or lie still, she couldn’t sit for very long. When she went to the chiropractor, none of the treatments or medicine eased the pain. The doctor decided to do an MRI, and the MRI revealed that the cancer was back and it appeared to have moved to her spine.”
The doctors told Carol it was much worse this time. It was inoperable because of where the tumors were growing. “The doctors did a spinal tap, drew out cells from her to make sure that it was cancerous. It was back to chemo — strong, strong dosages. For a while it worked, they were shrinking. Mom had to have a pump put in to receive medication, and a home healthcare nurse came to give her steroid injections. This chemotherapy was the worst — it really made her sick,” Marralee recollects.
As time progressed, Carol became very limited in her daily activities. With the cancer now on her spine, the lumps were affecting her nerves. “She couldn’t lift one foot to take steps. She had to get a brace for the back of her shin. It went underneath her heel and foot, and she had to wear that or else she would trip and fall. The chemo was making her weak and she could easily break bones.”
“I was thinking ‘this is bad… she was so sick that she couldn’t sit to focus and drive.’ ”
There were some days that Carol could go to the mall and walk around, but other days she didn’t feel like getting out of bed. “Everyone visited more often, but she still stayed on her own a lot. I remember one time she called me and said she wanted to come visit me and my daughter over the weekend. ‘I think I can make it. I’m feeling kind of tired, but I’ll be alright.’ She started out, but she didn’t make it. She had one of the very first cell phones that came out, and she pulled off to the side of the road because she was feeling dizzy and sick,” Marralee recalls.
“I was thinking ‘this is bad… she was so sick that she couldn’t sit to focus and drive.’ She was taking a lot of steroids, but they made her hungry. Her friends and family were always bringing her food, but her physical appearance was changing. She was gaining water weight and of course she lost her hair. She would wear wigs and scarves to cover it up.”
Carol had two daughters that lived in Florida at the time. “Mom went to Miami a couple of times and stayed with Teresa. My sister Lesa and I traveled from Ohio to help take care of her during this time. I remember walking into the house for the first time and going into the living room where she was sitting. I almost didn’t recognize her. The steroids had bloated her so much that she didn’t look like mom. It had only been two months since the last time I saw her.”
During the chemo, Carol became diabetic. “She wouldn’t stay out of the peach Juicy Juice. I would go buy her more of it, but she started getting really, really dizzy. I took her to the hospital, and they found that her blood sugar was dangerously high. They kept her overnight.”
The doctors tried to fight the cancer in any way they could, despite the location of the tumors. Carol had a bone marrow transplant. “My siblings and I all went in to see if we were a good match, but the doctors said that they were able to use her own. They were cleaning the cancer cells out of her blood and bone marrow and putting it back in.”
“She was getting off balance and we thought it had to do with her spine. The CAT scan and MRI revealed the truth.”
After the transplant, Carol was put in an apartment across the street from the hospital in order to make it to her daily appointments. Marralee and Lesa would trade off taking care of her. “It was difficult because I had a small daughter, and I wasn’t allowed to bring her around my mom. Even though my mom loved Ashley, the doctors said it wasn’t a good idea because children are often carrying germs and mom was very susceptible to getting sick. If she caught even a cold, it would affect her for weeks.”
Carol was in too much pain to go back to work after she got diagnosed with the spinal cancer. With the cancer being inoperable, it was only a matter of time before it spread, yet again. “I want to say it was 8 or 9 months later that the doctors told us the cancer spread to her brain. She was getting off balance and we thought it had to do with her spine. The CAT scan and MRI revealed the truth. The cancer had traveled from her spine to her brain, and that’s when the diagnosis officially became terminal. The doctors gave her six months to live.”
“Once it sunk in that she may not be there for another year, we wanted to give her everything that she wanted.”
“I went to Florida to help take care of mom, and bring her home on the plane. When she was back in Ohio, I stayed with her a lot. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and thankfully I had that capability.” Carol’s son Doug and daughter Lesa came over as often as they could. Her two daughters from Florida, Angie and Teresa, came up and stayed for months at a time.
“As a daughter, there is nothing that mom could have asked for that we wouldn’t have tried to get for her. Whether it was food, drink or a material thing that she thought was pretty… we wanted to give her everything that she could want in her final days. Once it sunk in that she may not be there for another year, we wanted to give her everything that she wanted,” remembers Marralee.
Carol went into hospice care after she came back from Florida. She got a hospital bed because her bedroom was upstairs and she couldn’t get up the stairs anymore. “My daughter, Ashley, would always want to climb up in bed with her crayons and coloring books. I would get worried and tell her to get down, but mom wouldn’t have that. ‘You leave that girl alone, Marralee. She wants her nanny,’ she would say.”
Toward the end, Marralee and Angie were taking care of Carol. “Mom kept calling Angie by her sister’s name (Betty). We could tell she wasn’t always coherent. It was like she was trying to get the right words out, but couldn’t form them.”
“It took all my strength, but I told her, ‘It’s OK, mom. You can let go. I love you.’”
Marralee remembers her mom saying, “The water’s on.” She couldn’t figure out what she was referring to. There wasn’t any water running, anywhere. She tried giving her a drink, showing her that it was sunny out, and even took her to the bath. None of it was what she wanted. It took nearly a week to figure out that she was saying she was cold. “The water was the air conditioning running. I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to say. She would get frustrated because she couldn’t verbalize anything anymore. We had to guess what she was really wanting.”
Carol slept a lot during her last two weeks, but one night she woke up with a sense of urgency. “I remember the night before she passed. She looked at me like she wanted me to let her know it was going to be okay; that she could let go. I’m not sure if it’s that she was worried that my toddler was staying with us, or if she just wanted to know we would be OK. It took all my strength, but I told her, ‘It’s OK, mom. You can let go. I love you.’” That night, Carol passed away, ending her four-year fight with cancer.
When asked about how she views breast cancer now, Marralee says: “My views have changed over time. There was a time when I actually started crying at my next mammogram when the doctor felt a lump in my breast. I just thought that if you had breast cancer, you were going to die. The lump he felt was just a cyst. Over the years, the progress that they have made with diagnosis and genetic testing is comforting. I’ve had yearly mammograms since I was 25. Life doesn’t go on forever, and you have to take care of yourself.”
“No part of the body makes us more or less a person. The world is evolving and becoming more accepting of that.”
To families that are currently going through the struggle of battling breast cancer with a loved one, Marralee says: “Just hang in there; it isn’t necessarily a death sentence. There are numerous things that can help the patients. Try natural herbs and spices; often they can ease the pain. What works for some may not work for others, but be open minded. Never give up hope.”
Marralee feels that there used to be a lot of stigma around breast cancer, “A lot of times I feel like when it’s breast cancer, it’s a private subject and people don’t share information on it. I think that it’s gotten better over the years because there are so many men and women who have had breast cancer. Many people have been able to talk about it comfortably. It used to be that women felt they were no longer feminine without their breasts. I think the world is moving away from that now. More women are becoming empowered; they know they can be attractive and sexy without their breasts. Life is still worth living. No part of the body makes us more or less a person. The world is evolving and becoming more accepting of that, and I believe that’s a beautiful thing.”