Monday, 20 October 2008

Fuck cancer! Fuck it hard in the eye!


I didn't stay up to watch the debates last week because I had to get up early the next day, and accompany my mother to the hospital in Amsterdam. It was just a check-up and all turned out to be fine, but two years ago it was a very different story.

It was a cold morning when the phone rang. I had the day off, and was going to spend it in bed with a book and some music, or so I thought. "The last biopsy tested positive for carcinoma something or other." The voice on the phone suddenly seemed very far away. It said that this would change nothing, everything would be fine, and to go ahead with my round the world trip as planned. I told the voice not to be stupid. More news would soon follow, there was no need for me to come home, unless I wanted to. In a daze of tears and panic I knocked on my flatmate's door.

This is what I'd feared all along. For over a year now, her doctor kept assuring my mother that the lumps in her neck were nothing to worry about. But of course he was wrong. I had been trying to convince her to go to a different (bigger) hospital, but she always refused. Never having gone to college, my mother had an endless amount of faith in medical professionals. I tried to explain that slacker D students and frankly complete idiots can end up becoming doctors, and that getting a second opinion was very normal these days. But it was no use, and eventually I gave up. You start to feel a bit weird when you keep trying to convince someone who feels fine and literally has a clean bill of health that they might have a life threatening disease. And of course I wanted to believe she was healthy too.

I spilled my guts with my flatmate and tried to compose myself. Then I went home. When I got there the general mood was optimistic, no, scratch that, it was determent. Dad had been on the phone all day, and it had been decided that her treatment would be continued at the Anthony van Leeuwenhoek hospital (also known as the Dutch Cancer Institute). The staff there were great from the very beginning, making sure all waiting was kept to an absolute minimum, and in general just being very helpfull and warm and smart about everything. It turned out the cancer had spread to the lymph notes in her neck (hence the lumps) but the tumor itself was nowhere to be found. Many tests later, it turned out to be tongue cancer. A very rare form that usually only strikes very old, heavy smoking males. Not fit and healthy 49 year old women (my mother quit smoking about 25 years ago).

They were very worried the cancer would spread to her lungs (in which case her prospects would be bleak), so they had to act fast. Surgery was scheduled to remove the damaged lymph notes and the tumor would be attacked with a severe combination of chemo therapy and radiation. My mum was fine with everything. From day one she literally said; "I'm not going to die, I don't care whatever I have to do, I refuse to let this beat me." I have never seen such grace under pressure. Throughout the months that followed, my mother was the one that kept us all sane. She is a pillar of her community, and it was strange to see how friends and neighbours all burst into tears on our couch while my mother comforted them and assured everyone all would be well. It was also very cool to see how many people love my parents, and for over a year she received cards, flowers, gifts and emails every single day! On her birthday she was ambushed by her art school friends "The Lolas" and surprised with a champagne breakfast and a car full of gifts, one of which being a portrait they had made of her, each painting a section from a photo they took. Of course she was very level-headed about the outpour of affection. She said; "We invest in people, and now it's our turn to cash in." You can't argue with that kind of logic...

The first time I actually saw my mother the patient, was after her surgery. A giant scar that ran from behind her ear down to the front of her shoulder marked the gap the operation had left in her neck, and it was obvious she was in a lot of pain. My parents initially didn't want my sister and me to see her like this, but I assured them that nothing we could find in that hospital bed would be half as scary as what we were imagening in our heads. It was frightening and awful to see someone you love so much in such a state, but we have never been closer as a family. Almost immediately after the surgery my mother had to report back for chemo and radiation. Having cancelled my travel plans and being the one living closest to the hospital, I spent a lot of time with her there and I am still very happy with every minute. It's a rare comfort to actually be able to do something when life is cruel to your loved ones, and those hours spent reading to her, playing cards with her or just sitting there, felt like the most important job in the world to me. It's no fun to watch poison eat away at your mother, but it's a lot better than not being there and feeling powerless.

We were all on our best behaviour, mostly saving our self-pity and bitching for private moments with friends, and trying to be strong for eachother, but towards the end of my mother's treatment, our thin saint-like veneer was starting to crack. It was the shittiest christmas ever. We didn't mean for it to be like that, but the whole thing was wearing us out. Because my mother couldn't enjoy food, we made no effort to do the whole christmas dinner thing, especially since my parents had to leave for the final week of chemo treatment on boxing day. We were snapping at eachother left and right and frankly, we just couldn't stand to hear the word cancer one more time. On boxing day, my sister went to have christmas dinner with her boyfriend's family, my parents left for Amsterdam, and since my boyfriend at the time was in Cambodia and I didn't want to bug my friends, I stayed at home with my shitty shitty mood. And that's when the phone rang. "Yeah, so we're putting a dinner together with some people, nothing fancy just six of us with some food and wine, and you're coming. I don't care how you get here or when, but you are coming and we're going to have a laugh and a drink together tonight." Naturally I was very happy to oblige, and this is just one example of the way my friends have been fantastic throughout the whole thing.

Two years have past since that dreadful phone call and it was weird to once again be back in that hospital. There are no sore thumbs here. Everyone you see either has cancer or is visiting someone who has it, so the atmosphere is very subdued and respectful. Sitting in the waiting room we saw two sisters coming out of a doctor's office, obviously having received horrible news. As we watched them collapse into eachother's arms we looked straight ahead in silence. We both hoped they'd would be okay, but mainly never to be in their shoes ever again.

Being the absolute champ that she is, my mother passed all the tests with flying colours, and we were out of there in no time.
As we were about to enter the revolving door that leads to fresh air, she paused and asked me "Is there anything else you might need from this place?". As I looked at her cheeky smile and sparkling eyes I knew I had my mother back. And that is all that matters.

I love you mama!

1 comment:

Lourien said...

Wow! beautifully written. proud of you.