This Couldn't Happen To Us... But It Did.In February of 2009, my mother went in for her first mammogram. I had been begging her for years to take care of herself and to see a doctor for routine screening and had finally succeeded. There was absolutely no indication that there should be a problem. Her doctor did a manual breast exam and taught her how to perform one herself for monthly self-screening. There were no lumps or bumps felt anywhere. Everything seemed fine. She called me a few days later in tears. "They found something 'suspicious' in my left breast! Now they need me to come in for a sonogram. They wouldn't call me if I didn't have cancer, would they?"
I sought to comfort her. "They aren't saying you have cancer, Mom. They just want to be sure. It's probably nothing."
I did such a good job that I actually convinced myself that everything was fine. But it wasn't. It was cancer. The tumor was small, but we soon learned that size doesn't mean a whole lot. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and into her bones. She had tumors on the bones of her arms and legs, on her ribs, on her spine, and on her skull. She had cancer everywhere, but never had a symptom. Her cancer was so advanced, that the oncologist didn't see any reason why she should have a mastectomy right away. She prescribed chemotherapy and told my mother that there was no hope that she would be cured. Her cancer was more like a chronic illness which would be treated with chemo until she died.
Mom did well through two years of treatment. Chemotherapy seemed to be working beautifully. She had a couple of radiation treatments as well. She didn't have too many problems with the chemo drugs and was able to work for the first year of her illness. Emotionally, it was tough at times, but she was fortunate. We began to believe we would have her for quite a while.
In January of this year, she had a seizure. I made the 400-mile trip from my home to the hospital as quickly as possible. When I arrived, I learned that the cancer had spread to her brain. I researched brain metastasis and learned that my mother didn't have much time left, but I refused to say so to my mother. Her doctors told her not to give up, so I kept my opinion to myself.
During the following months, she became weaker and weaker. She started an intensive radiation therapy regimen designed to shrink the tumors in her head. The treatment was geared more toward controlling symptoms than affecting a cure. My mother refused to give up.
At the beginning of May, she started falling. She began by falling occasionally, but the falls became progressively more frequent and more severe. I finally intervened and called her doctor when she fell flatly on her face without even trying to catch herself. I told them that I knew she was dying, but none of us knew how severe things really were. She was suffering terribly. The cancer had spread again and caused meningitis. In the end, she went into an inpatient hospice. She died 10 days later. In another 10 days, she would have turned 60.
I have thought about things over and over since. I've wondered if she might have been saved if she had seen the doctor sooner. I think about all the years we might have had together had she lived. And I think about all of the years we did have together. And I think about the fact that everything else about that fateful check-up showed that my mother was in perfect health. She was a perfectly healthy woman who was struck down by a fatal illness.
Since my mother's diagnosis, our family has made it our mission to keep our story from being someone else's story.