When my mom phoned to say that her most recent mammogram showed some abnormalities, I instantly felt sick to my stomach. I just knew that her subsequent biopsy would show breast cancer. Unfortunately, my gut instinct was right and she was officially diagnosed in October 2018. Since then, she has undergone extensive treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Our family has had our fair share of medical drama – from brain tumors and epilepsy to atrial fibrillation and Alzheimer’s disease – so I’m no stranger to heartbreak in the health department. But I wasn’t prepared for the intense feelings of helplessness and guilt that accompanied my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis. Months later, I still ask myself: “How do I support my mom while also living my life?”
My husband and I work full-time and our daughter just turned two years old. Between work and the immediate needs of my household, I don’t have much time to spare. I’ve wished I could just quit my job and take care of my mom during this difficult time, but that’s not financially realistic. I’ve also wished I could just completely lose it, cry all the tears and go hide away in a cave somewhere. But once again, that’s not super realistic.
Guilt Sets In
So how do I help my mom cope with this scary disease? The truth is, I feel like I’ve done a poor job of helping her cope. That’s probably because I watched my mom care for my grandma – her mom – when she was diagnosed with breast cancer almost 15 years ago. My mom gingerly cared for my grandma’s draining tubes after she had a mastectomy, and helped her through all the stages of her chemotherapy. She did this as a self-employed, hard-working artist while taking care of a teenager and a household.
Because I have a 9-to-5 job and a young daughter, I can’t do everything I want to do for my mom. I’ve wanted to be there for each infusion, each doctor’s appointment, and to hold her hand when she felt nauseous from all the medications swirling in her bloodstream. But I haven’t been there, and for that I feel guilty and selfish. Not to mention totally helpless. It hurts when you want to “fix” something, but have no way of eliminating the problem.
The hardest part has been sequestering my daughter from my mother at the first sign of any sniffle or cough. Chemotherapy is extremely hard on the immune system, and the last thing a cancer patient needs is the latest strain of a cold that’s been mutated by a bunch of toddlers in a daycare facility. There have been multiple times where we’ve planned a visit and then my daughter has gotten sick. That means I can’t see my mom either since the risk is too high of passing something along. This inability to physically see each other and hug has been beyond difficult for everyone involved. Especially since my daughter is such a huge motivator for my mom to get well.
Doing What I Can
I’m really not sure what I would do if my mom didn’t have the support of my dad, my extended family and my mom’s close friends. They’ve been able to go with her to her infusion appointments and take care of her in the ways that I haven’t been able to. I’m beyond grateful for these people and at a loss of how to ever begin to thank them for the loving care they provide.
Despite feeling guilty and inadequate in my caregiving contributions, I have found some ways to help my mom. I hope my list of small ideas and gestures can help others who also feel helpless during a loved one’s health crisis.
1. Research Everything
As soon as my mom was diagnosed, I took to the Internet to learn all I could about her specific type of breast cancer and the treatment options. I know more about axillary lymph node dissection and chemotherapy than I ever wanted to know. But this has helped me be informed when my mom and her doctors make decisions about her treatment.
2. Appointments via Speakerphone
It’s difficult to take three hours off from work to drive to and from my mom’s doctors’ appointments. My solution? I take a little break, call my mom’s cellphone and she puts me on speakerphone. That way I can hear the conversation and also ask questions.
3. Take Notes During Appointments
I’ve learned from my family’s previous healthcare experiences that it’s important to have someone act as an advocate for the patient and track information. I am an expert note-taker, so I took copious notes during my mom’s appointments. Then I typed them all up and sent them to her in an email for her reference.
4. Color-Code Medications
The sheer number of prescribed and over-the-counter medications that my mom had to take during chemotherapy was astonishing. And the regiment changed based on how many days it had been since her infusion. I made a list of all the medications to take each day and color-coded the list to the medication bottles, using simple colored marker dots. This may have been more for my peace of mind, but I do believe it helped my parents.
5. Hire a Housecleaning Service
For Christmas, I gave my parents a gift certificate for a couple of housecleaning sessions. I knew my mom would be completely exhausted from treatment and that my dad would feel overwhelmed by everything. It has taken some of the stress away and given them a small break from chores. I’ve also cleaned their house a few times myself to help ease their minds.
6. Let Them Vent
I consider my mom one of my best friends, and I’ve encouraged her to call or text me when she needs to vent. Whether it be complaining about the oncologist’s cold hands or just wanting to scream at the world, I’ve asked my mom to share these things with me. Giving her an outlet to express her feelings is important.
7. Send Greeting Cards
I love greeting cards. Especially in an age of everything digital, there’s nothing like getting a handwritten note on a greeting card in the mail. It just makes you feel special. I like to send my mom “Thinking of You” cards in an effort to brighten her day.
8. Check-In Often
I don’t know how many times I’ve texted my mother asking: “How is my momma doing today?” I’m pretty sure that entire sentence comes up as predictive text now. I’ve texted her when I’ve been unsure how she’s feeling, and hesitant to call for fear of waking her from a nap. When I know she is doing OK, I call on my drive home from work via my handy Bluetooth device. This typically gives me a good 45-minute period of time to talk with her.
9. Be There During the “Big” Ones
It was important for me to be at my mom’s first surgery consultation because I knew we’d have to have the lumpectomy versus mastectomy discussion. That’s a big deal. I also knew I wanted to be with my dad during my mom’s surgery and to be there to help my mom when she woke up. These are the “big” ones – the crucial times that it’s best to be there in the flesh.
10. Visit Whenever Possible
Obviously, there’s nothing like in-person care and the healing power of a hug. Now that my mom is over the hurdles of chemotherapy and lumpectomy surgery, we’re able to see her more frequently because she has more energy.
I imagine my list will grow and morph as my mom undergoes radiation, but at least I have some ways I can provide support while going through the motions of daily life. And hopefully in a year from now when my mom has completed all of her treatments, we’ll celebrate another “big” one by toasting her remission.