One Way Family Issues Impact A Cancer Diagnosis

I was different. I didn’t fit into my childhood family. Although my dad tried to accept me as I was, my mother didn’t. I suffered from lots of sadness as a child and subsequently, frustration, anger and more sorrow as an adult.

By the age of 41, when my mother was diagnosed, I had suffered emotionally for a good deal of my young adult life. However, by working hard to raise my daughters differently than I had been raised, I was content in my nuclear family. My mother and stepfather lived 285 miles from us and that helped.

My maternal grandmother had died of breast cancer when I was in my twenties and the history of breast cancer in the family went back at least one prior generation.

Mom had always preached the value of positive thinking. Although today I consider myself a cautious optimist; as a child and even young adult her philosophy sounded like, if there’s something wrong, Sue, it must be wrong with you.

When I answered the phone the day she called with her news, I wasn’t surprised that among her first words were, “They caught it early; I expect to be fine.” I had so many questions and serious concerns for her, but she talked no further about her illness. I felt frustration and sorrow once again.

During my mother’s cancer journey, my emotions were widespread and varied. I felt sadness for Mom and my then school aged daughters, who had good connections with their grandmother. I experienced distress over the likely genetically linked cancers in our family. I was numbed by the decades of psychological pain.

Nonetheless, I visited her with and without my nuclear family, increasingly as her health declined.

Mom suffered through agony as her disease metastasized to her bones and ultimately appeared in her lungs and liver.

I sensed that she needed support, encouragement and loved ones who had her back. She wouldn’t have readily admitted it.

As Mom’s cancer became increasingly life-threatening, I hoped and prayed for reconciliation. I was ultimately able to connect the dots between worshipping a loving, forgiving God and the desire to forgive my mother, who had made life so hard for me.

I felt sorrow for my mom, as well as a connection to her, empathizing with the grief she was probably feeling.

What incredible irony! I had felt held hostage by confusion and my yearning for unconditional love in my youth and yet strangely I took on an unconditionally loving role with Mom. It seemed natural. I felt no pressure to behave as I did; no religious or moral need led to my desire.

It was as if I had stepped out of my abused child’s shoes and into my loving parent’s shoes. By then, both roles were quite familiar to me.

I left virtually all of my hurts behind, as I devoted more time and energy to my mother.

My husband and children met me at Mom’s one Sunday, resulting in an unfortunate surprise. I had told my daughters that Grandma wasn’t that sick, however, my mother decided to remain in bed that day. Nevertheless, we all spent several hours together in my mother’s bedroom.

Before I left her home, my mother gave me her hummingbird watch which I had admired as long as she’d owned it.

Ten days later, I wanted to spend a little more time with Mom. I planned to travel east that day, without my stepfather’s knowledge.

Before I left, Mom’s friend, Sandy, called, “Your mother is still alive, but she was admitted to the hospital last night.”

The next day, around noon, I met Sandy at the hospital.

During Mom’s battle with breast cancer, I had never considered my relationship with her in any way other than it had been throughout my life. I didn’t think about myself as a good daughter as I drove back and forth across the state. I had only a vague concept of being truly there for my mother. Yet I now know I was.

As Mom lay in her hospital room, my mother’s husband, her close friend and I took turns sitting with her.

In time, my mother’s breathing became shallower and not long after that she took her last breath.

Life felt uncomfortable to me in the early days and weeks following my mother’s death. I have two siblings and couldn’t grasp the events, in my heart or in my mind, that had led me from forty-five years as the family scapegoat, to representing her children in the hospital that autumn afternoon.

The heartache from difficulties in my earlier life slowly yielded to considerable peace and contentment. And twenty-five years later, as I sat at my mother-in-law’s bedside in her last days of life, I finally realized the positive impact being there for my mother had made on me.

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