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A Family's Year With Cancer

The family dynamic is a very interesting thing in the course of tragic news.

It was a year ago last February that my mom heard, "you need an oncologist.” What a crap day that was.

Our family is pretty tight. We seem to all have different ways of dealing with crap news. My husband Philip, our two boys and I live with my parents. Talk about adding a whole new stress to the mix. Philip and I were about to sign our life away on a house when mom was diagnosed with cancer. Not knowing what to expect and how long mom had, my family chose to stay headquartered at Ground Zero. Little did we know that mom was going to breeze through the cancer ordeal. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but she has set the bar pretty high for the rest of us. We were all certain that life as we knew it would be turned upside-down, inside-out and filled with sad, scary and dark days. It hasn't been that bad (trust me, I would have preferred mom won tickets to Disney World, but it’s not nearly the hell on earth I had imagined). If you ask my dad, you will get a completely different picture, usually involving hospice care (this would be the "dark side"). My brother might choose to change the subject all together. My aunts are very involved in knowing the situation and checking in regularly. My uncles? Not so much. Do you see a pattern? 

I imagine things in a rainbow perspective. It’s not just black or white. Cancer, or no cancer. There is hope, dreams, faith, possibility, fear, strength and courage. I can't speak for the rest of the family's thoughts on this. When we talk about it, there are things left unsaid and feelings not shared or understood. Cancer is exhausting and life altering for everyone involved. Things can change in an instant or they can remain status quo for long periods of time. 

Right now, I feel that our family is in a twilight zone of luck. Mom has been the same for a year. There has been slight progression, but her daily activity, overall spirits and health haven't changed. A couple weeks ago, when we got the news that there had been a little progression, our immediate reaction was to say a few four-letter words. Then, after a few hours of processing the news, mom and I ended up laughing, I believe, and we decided the news wasn't so bad. The bad day was the diagnosis. More chemotherapy isn't anything new. We know what to expect!

My mom sets the tone for the family. As I have mentioned before, she’s hardcore. She loves her job, her work family and, of course, us, her crazy dysfunctional family filled with enough personality types that Dr. Phil's head might spin right off his shoulders.

I have seen families come together and flourish during the cancer fight, and remain close, peaceful and full of strength after the fight is lost. I have also witnessed how cancer not only took a life, but also destroyed a family. Either way, lives are permanently changed. If it's a long triumphant battle or a short, fast and unexpected loss, there will be days when you wake up and try to remember what life was like before cancer. There will be days that you wonder, Seriously, how long will this fight last? Can't we just win this and move on with life?

There are days when you fear that you are running out of time. You want time to stand still so that you don't have to hear possible bad scan results. 

Such is cancer, I suppose. I can't dwell on it. What if mom is one of those few people that live with stage 4 lung cancer for six or more years? It would be 2,190 days of me living scared to death, sad, stressing, resenting the disease and the time it's taking away from me to be with mom. Not only is cancer debilitating one life, its debilitating everyone in the family. Unacceptable. I go into my happy little bubble and focus on staying positive. Hey, it works. I like to be happy, what can I say.

Cancer has struck our family before. Philip’s father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer when my husband and I were 20 weeks pregnant with our first son. The cancer became tragically unstoppable within 12 weeks. I learned the most amazing lesson from Philip who said that he would not look at his father as if he were dying. He was going to treat him like his father, the man that he knew for 32 years. I can't remember his exact words, but it was something like, "He's not dead, so why act like he is?” They shared amazing quality time, laughter, ice cream, fishing, drives and talks simply because Phillip refused to allow fear and sadness to wreck what time was left. His father passed away 30 minutes after our son was born. The strength my husband showed in labor and delivery that night was astounding (and I was the one pushing with drugs that had worn off). I will never, ever forget watching him hold our son while finding out his father had passed.   

Cancer sucks. From my personal involvement this past year with Relay For Life and The American Cancer Society, I can honestly say that no matter how grim of an outlook, how big the task of care giving, how hopeless you might feel at any given time, there is someone in the organization that can identify. I have dragged myself to a number of Relay for Life team captain meetings. I wanted to turn around almost every time because I feel pretty useless in this battle. I leave each meeting pumped up and full of hope from hearing someone’s story. 

Cobb County’s Relay for Life is May 11 at Jim Miller Park. It’s an amazing and empowering event open to everyone. Leap Year, Feb. 29, any online donation of $29 will be matched for Relay for Life. I’m happy to be on the winning side of this battle to find a cure. For more information, visit Relay for Life or  www.relayforlife.org or Susan's Turquoise Peace Signs.

Katie Barrentine March 01, 2012 at 04:15 AM
Pam I am sending positive vibes your families way. I so hope your father doesn't have cancer. I honestly can't imagine going through treatment at the age of 80. I'm not sure what unique gene my mom has that allows her to get through these treatments the way she does. I know we are so lucky that her reactions are so mild. I know she doesn't think so when she is experiencing the side effects but in reality to what others suffer she is handling it so well. That is rare from what I hear. Good luck with the job situation. That has to be hard to keep your positive energy full. Not that your asking but in my best impersonation of Polyanna "the positive is that you have this extra quality time to spend with your parents". :) Hang in there!
Julia Harris March 01, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Pam, I agree with Katie that although the job situation is grim, it does give you the ability to be with your dad during this difficult time. You're in my thoughts and prayers.
Pam J March 01, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Thank you, Katie. We found out today that he does have lung cancer. The doctor couldn't tell us much, so he has to go see the oncologist. As we were putting him back in the car, he looked at me and said "don't worry about me" It nearly broke my heart. And from everybody that I have talked to, your mother is lucky that she doesn't seem to have a lot of ill side effects from the treatment. Depending on how far it's gone, my dad may try something. We'll just have to wait and see. I just always thought a heart attack would get him, not cancer. Oh well, off to do another job search!
Rebecca Grindstaff March 02, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Aunt Lois & I just think that you are the best story teller ever!!! All of your columns are amazing, and funny, and full of love and information and facts. Keep writing and fighting the war, honey. We are there with you in spirit. You are doing a great job...with all of it...thank you.
Pam J March 15, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Thank you Julia. My father passed away last Friday. We had moved him into a hospice on Thursday. He was asleep and just quit breathing on Friday. My mom, my brother and I were there, and it helped that we saw that he didn't have any pain at the end. Just took his last breath. It was a rough two weeks, so we all feel like we've been beat up, but things will get better.

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