My Mom: Memories of Love and Loss

My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.

Why?

Grief.

I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.

Today is Mother’s Day.

I am ready to share.

I think.

Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.

Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.

It meant a lot.

I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.

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These are two of the many violets in my home.

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Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.

I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.

Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.

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Black-eyed Susans took over the garden.

When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.

Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.

We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.

These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.

Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.

Another shredding is always possible.

That’s grief.

I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.

March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.

Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.

On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.

I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.

I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.

I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.

I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.

I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.

If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.

I know how much I was loved.

That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.

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Individualized Survivorship

I was half listening to a show on TV many, many months back, and whatever I was watching touched on the importance of survivorship plans for cancer patients. I shifted my focus more intently to find out how these differed from what I thought of as a treatment plan. The specific TV segment ended before it began, and it never went into enough depth to even explain what a survivorship plan was other than a detailed medical plan for continued care and survival. To me, this translated that a survivorship plan was merely an extended treatment plan.

I took to the internet and survivorship plans did seem to have a very medical tilt to them. These plans looked great in that they contained all your pertinent information about your past treatments and planning for future care in one spot. They were very similar to my health journal that I take for medical office visits. For me, a drawback is they are narrow in scope where only the medical aspects of continued health are part of the plan. They are forms.

Survivorship can’t be condensed into a form.

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At the beginning of treatment, I was given a piece of paper with blanks for me to fill in with all the particulars about diagnosis, surgeries, treatments, beginning and end dates, etc. It was a fine centralized place for information at a time when life suddenly was more overwhelming than ever, but rather limited for the long haul. It remained a good reference tool.

Some survivorship plans out there are better than others. One of the better ones I’ve found comes from the Minnesota Cancer Alliance, created by Karen Karls, a survivor from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. In addition to giving space for a historical documentation of dates and treatments, it provides great questions and things to think about for follow-up care. It looks like an awesome resource. The actual survivorship plan can be found here. Pick and choose what may work for your needs since it is lengthy.

I would add to this resource additional space or pages for any continued treatments needed if you are metastatic and have need for an ongoing list that can still be somewhat at a glance to provide an overall picture. It would have medicines, beginning/ending dates, side effects, results, and an area for why you switched or for additional notes. I use a spreadsheet to accomplish this for my needs.

I want a healing plan. In my mind, a healing plan combines the medical aspects of a survivorship plan (treatment plan) and the complementary pieces added to ongoing medical plans for complete care. A healing plan encompasses all of it. As a survivor, you are the executive in charge of connecting all the dots between your oncologist, primary care provider, naturopaths, acupuncturist, massage therapist, mental health provider, and any other therapies or services you seek for better health. This sounds like the job of a patient navigator, but the role of the patient navigator stays within an integrative health care network. He or she can put you in touch with approved services within a network. As soon as you want to seek something complementary outside of the system, you are on your own. Incidentally, they also haven’t been too keen on hearing how I think a patient navigator differs from a survivor navigator, probably because it opens up too many potential liability issues. It makes me mad the kinds of wrenches that get thrown in the way of someone’s best health.

A survivor navigator is hereby decreed a new position.

It is one of great worth for which you will receive no monetary pay. You are self-employed and get all the benefits from your new position. Maybe someday health care will see the wisdom of multiple services (even if they are outside the system) working in tandem with efficient communication and patient information sharing. Research should be doing A LOT more sharing of their discoveries and resources to find a cure. It only seems logical. What is crucial to remember as your own survivor navigator is that you must communicate important details of your healing plan to relevant parties. For example, your oncologist should know if you’re adding any new supplements to your health regiment because they may interact with treatments or other prescriptions.

They also may not. I have heard “we don’t have evidence for how these herbal supplements interact with drug x” a couple of times.

I try not to roll my eyes too loudly.

Translated, it means “there isn’t any evidence because big pharma will never sponsor such a study since it may be discovered something cheaper and more available works even better than drug x.”

I doubt there will ever be any such studies. I do not have medical training and am not making medical claims. The above are my own opinions which I openly share with my medical team. You need to do your research, have relevant conversations, and make the decision that you feel is best for you. I am not a doctor.

I do know some of the supplements I take, many of which have been suggested by my oncologist, have helped my body feel better and move more effectively.

Maybe it’s too pie in the sky to think that each patient can have a personal assistant to schedule every need the patient has and keep it all straight. Call me a dreamer. I’d love to have a person like that assigned to me, but it looks like I am that person and I’m already here doing the job. Right now it’s a seed idea that has the potential to grow into something real for others. Somehow this person has to have reach outside of a provider network to connect patients to complementary resources without taking on potential risks in so doing.

Health care is better when people work together.

In education, students with special education needs have what is known as an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP for short. Every learner has different needs. The goal is for targeted instruction to each individual student. In theory, all students have an IEP, most being informal and not legally binding like an official IEP. A student receives his/her best education when teachers work together as a team for a specific learning outcome. A healing plan is much like an IEP in that it’s individualized to the individual.

People are working together for a specific health outcome.

Think of it as a personal Individualized Health Plan, or IHP to stick with the acronym pattern.

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I have a lot of people and strategies in my corner supporting my best health. So much is crammed into that corner that it’s spreading out and filling other spaces and other corners. For me, this is a good thing because of the many options it provides at my disposal. I have developed a strength as an advocate for my own health that continues to evolve. If I relied solely on the medical realm, I would have limited myself to a very narrow scope of what is available. Components like a naturopath, acupuncture, and energy work receive a very luke warm reception so I steer clear of those when having specific medical discussions. Fitness, nutrition, meditation, and science-backed inquiries get more attention. People accept and believe different things are effective. Your healing plan will be individualized and fluid, just like you. Mine sure has changed over time. Use your best judgment and you will develop one that feels right for you.

A brief note: My last few posts have focused more on the medical side of my life as a cancer patient. I’ve chosen my words deliberately and have tried to convey that I support my doctors, nurses, and everyone on my team that cares for me. I fully support them. I have not expressed myself well enough if I have fallen short in conveying that message. I have also chosen my words carefully to make my voice heard as a patient. Being an involved patient doesn’t mean I am against the medical profession. Sure, there are things I would like to see change. It’s a huge motivator as I write specific posts. The idea that doctors and patients work together is key to all of it. I strive to work with them and find the best way for that to happen. An individualized health plan is part of what can help everyone work together. Health care is better when everyone involved works together.

 

Consider responding:

  • What do you feel are the most important parts of your individualized health plan?
  • In what ways have you advocated for yourself in terms of health or something else?

Thoughts on Oncology

Doctors’ roles are essential in healing.

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They should not be minimized or discounted. Cancer research will someday find a cure for what has affected us personally and our families. I am in awe for the dedication and care I have received. Traditional western medicine is only one route to choose. I know many who have stuck to this road with little question if something additional should also be done. Maybe they didn’t need or desire anything different. Maybe they didn’t know they could ask for anything else. Cancer was a six-month detour that blurred more with every passing year. It became part of their past.

However, if you only drive down Main Street, you only experience one part of a town. Side roads and rural areas are well worth the ride. They offer something different. You don’t have to travel only one or the other. My opinion is both are necessary to live well and/or be cancer free. You are the patient and in control over decisions that affect you. My healing plan consists of many side roads and rural areas that have made a positive difference for me. I am the common factor and pull it all together.

It has been so much more than a six-month detour for me. Parts still have blurred. I have traveled on many roads to get where I am today.

It seems strange that I haven’t blogged much about chemotherapy or my oncology appointments. Chemotherapy has been a focal point for far too long. It sucks energy and manifests more physical symptoms than I care to list. It sustains life while it kills cells. Chemo is reassuring and comforting in its own way. It ranks high as a huge part of my healing plan. I have hit my 100th treatment. That’s pretty significant. It isn’t a celebration, but I am checking off the box and moving on. I am still here.

There are so many other aspects in addition to active treatment that I think are also important to an integrated approach to a cancer healing plan.

A strong doctor-patient relationship is vital for my living as healthy as possible.

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The relationship I have with my oncologist is a really good one. He deserves credit for sticking with me, listening to me, and working for what I want. He knows how I feel. Yes, I’d love to be someone who visits her oncologist once a year, and eventually less than that, but it’s not the kind of survivor I am. I’m getting active treatment. I go to my doctor a lot. Sometimes it means I may be a pain in the butt. I do get all my questions answered. I even come up with some good ideas from time to time. The good news is my oncologist doesn’t have a chance to forget about me. If I don’t speak up for me, who will? I am my own best advocate.

Oncologists differ from one another. They’re human just like the rest of us. I met with a couple oncologists at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, shortly after my initial diagnosis. Overall, they agreed with the treatment plan suggested at Carbone Cancer Center in Madison. Mayo was more open to surgery options. I liked them quite a bit but it was just too far a trek for regular care. I had top-notch care a few mere miles from home.

A couple of years ago I sought out another second opinion within my provider network and it wasn’t very helpful. It wasn’t hurtful either, just not worthwhile. This oncologist let me know what his opinion was on my options. I let him know what I thought of his limited research. He was not open to complementary cancer supports. I was not a good fit with this oncologist. In my opinion, he defines healing with a very limited scope. Every once in a while I see a clip of him on the local news. He has a great reputation, but I am so glad I have the oncologist I do, who also has an excellent reputation. My position is that healing includes many different aspects that work together.

I’m going to repeat that: Healing includes many different aspects that work together.

No one heals in a sterile petri dish or test tube.

My health journal helps keep all my medical information together.

A health journal has been incredibly useful for my oncology visits. It really helps with dates and specifics as to how I’m feeling, my questions, how and when medications were tweaked. I am a planner. I make the most of the short time I have with my doctor. Sometimes it isn’t so short, but again, that’s the kind of survivor I am, and I’m going to take the time I need. My health depends on it. I believe one reason I’m still doing well is because I’m able to keep really detailed notes to report to my doctor and have one place to keep all my information.

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I’m also more of an anxious person than I used to be. Cancer and anxiety go together. Keeping a health journal eases some of my anxiety because it gives me power. An added benefit is the built-in memory that naturally exists with documentation.

Ask questions. A short office visit doesn’t suffice for what I need to feel as a satisfactory visit, even with my health journal in tow. It wouldn’t hurt if office visits were about ten minutes longer than they are now. The oncology nurses are good resources in getting word to your doctor, as is electronically messaging your doctor through MyChart or any similar online technology. I am important enough, and so are you, to have your questions and concerns answered and acknowledged in a way that you understand. It is okay to disagree. I do believe everyone is there to advocate for your best care, but that doesn’t mean you blindly agree to something you don’t understand or have reservations about. There may be something even better for you.

I do believe the answer, a cure, lies in research and things like immunotherapies, targeted treatments, genomics, personalized medicine, and medical advances that haven’t happened yet.

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This is why research for advanced stage cancers is so important. More research dollars need to be allocated to advanced stage research! Click here for some suggestions. There needs to be a lot more access to better treatments and drugs that are more effective for those of us living with secondary cancer. We deserve access to advances in immunotherapies, targeted treatments, personalized medicines, and new therapies. It isn’t an option to run out of options. Keep telling your oncologist this over and over again. They meet with the other oncologists in their network to discuss cases. If they keep hearing these demands from patients, it’s more likely medicine will go in this direction.

Keep speaking up.

Patients can help steer these discussions by continuing to advocate for what they need in their office visit.

Healing and a cure are not interchangeable. A cured person may not be healed. Trauma, fear, and other physical or emotional issues can still interfere with living fully. Healing and a cure will inevitably overlap as healers, doctors, and patients work together. Stranger things have happened. Healing and a cure absolutely can overlap. I keep striving for both.

I am ever hopeful I will find a way. Always.