Personal Essay: A battle with cancer and coronavirus
Her hands knitted me every winter hat I’ve ever owned. They rubbed my back when I couldn’t sleep, they wiped my tears from my face. For so long, I’ve taken for granted the simple act of holding my mother’s hand.
Sitting on my couch, drinking my morning coffee, I was getting ready to start my day at Zoom University, courtesy of coronavirus. It was an especially quiet morning, my roommates were still asleep and the house felt still, almost stagnant. My cat lay stretched from head to toe at the foot of the couch purring gently, as I pat his head. I had no idea that in 30 seconds, my heart would fall through my stomach, and the comfort and content I felt would be but a fleeting moment.
On the morning of April 1, my mom called. This wasn’t surprising in itself: she lives in Florida, and we talk on the phone everyday, if not several times a day. Her voice seemed different, hesitant. She went on to tell me that in mid-March, she went for her annual mammogram. I knew exactly where the phone call was going, though I didn’t want to admit it. The technician found an anomaly on her mammogram imaging, a biopsy was taken and sent to the lab. The words hung heavy in air, like they were dripping with tar and sludge, rolling down snow-covered mountains, starting avalanches in the slopes of my mind. They hit my chest like a speeding bullet, like an airbag slamming into your face in a car accident. Piercing, throbbing, then dull.
“Lauren-Jane, the doctors found breast cancer.”
My parents have been divorced since I was 11, and I’m an only child. Even before the divorce, my dad was always traveling for work in various countries. It has always been just my mom and I. I’m sure this sentiment is overused and cliché, but my mom is my best friend in the truest sense. She has always been there to drive me to school, cheer me on at lacrosse games and figure skating competitions, support me at every twist and turn of my life. Our relationship goes beyond the everyday parental duties; the love we share is tangible to everyone around us. My mom always wanted to have kids: Motherhood was her true calling. As it often does for everyone, her life didn’t follow the exact path that she wanted. She suffered eight miscarriages before I was born. She became pregnant with me at 39, and after a grueling pregnancy, I was born 5 months after she turned 40. A year after I was born, menopause came and went and so did her childbearing years. She calls me her “miracle baby” and has treated me like nothing less for my entire life.
During our phone call, she explained to me what the doctors told her. The cancer appeared to be Stage 1, and the growth was only about 1.5 centimeters in size. The oncologist explained that while the growth was small, the cancer was Grade 3 meaning the most aggressive form that it could be. She needed to have surgery right away to remove the growth, as well the lymph nodes in her right armpit and right side of her neck removed in case the cancer had spread without detection. Recovery from surgery would be uncomfortable but quick. The first thing I wanted to do was fly down to Tampa to be with her. A global pandemic is not conducive to quick and convenient air travel. If only she had been diagnosed a month prior. If only her test results came back quicker. If only…
When I was a sophomore in highschool, my appendix ruptured and sent me into early stages of sepsis. At 3 a.m. just after a Vermont snowstorm, my mom drove me to the emergency room. I had emergency surgery and my appendix was removed. Due to the severity of my case, I had to stay in the hospital for a week afterwards. Terrified and still delirious from the cocktail of meds pumping through my IV, I begged not to stay overnight alone. Luckily, I was 15 and still considered a minor, so my mom was allowed to stay with me. She slept on a cot in my hospital room for six nights just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. She drove the 45 minutes back and forth from our house to the hospital everyday to feed the animals and to shower, but every night for that week, she slept on that cot.
The reality that my mom is recovering from invasive surgery to remove a cancerous growth from her body alone and 983 miles away from me is a reality that I still struggle to come to terms with. I should be able to return that 6-year-old favor to her and sleep on a cot on the floor of her hospital room. On April 9, five days after her removal surgery my mom began her first chemotherapy and radiation treatment. For the next 12 weeks, five days a week she will undergo 10 minutes of radiation therapy and one round of chemo.
Chemotherapy damages a person’s bone marrow, which is responsible for the creation of red and white blood cells in the human body. It completely obliterates the human immune system. In the midst of a global pandemic, a time in human history when a killer virus is running rampant, my mother will have virtually no defenses against foreign pathogens. Almost every day of the week, she must make the trek out of her home, breaking quarantine and social distancing regulations, to travel to her treatment center. Each time she leaves her house and with every treatment she undergoes, my mom becomes more and more vulnerable to the dangers of coronavirus. One sick person outside the treatment center or at the gas station or supermarket, and she could be trading her chemo bags for a respirator.
The image of my 61-year-old mother sitting in the chemo suite of a hospital, hooked up to the IV with literal poison coursing through her body, shaking, vomiting, in pain knowing that I cannot be there to hold her hand is virtually unbearable. It brings a tightness to my chest that I have yet to rid myself of.
My mom has the softest hands. Small and delicate like mine, they show her age and tell her story. Wrinkled fingers, speckled with spots from her days in the sun, knuckles slightly swollen from arthritis, perfectly filed natural nails. Her hands knitted me every winter hat I’ve ever owned. They rubbed my back when I couldn’t sleep, they wiped my tears from my face. For so long, I’ve taken for granted the simple act of holding my mother’s hand.
Rather than hold her hand, I video call my mom during her chemo treatments. We chat about everyday things, even during her life-altering struggle my mom is cheerful and retains a sense of normalcy for my sake. She has a 95% chance of her hair falling out during chemo. I went wig shopping with her via video call, and she treated it like any other trip we would have normally taken to TJ Maxx. She was laughing at the absolute ridiculousness of it all, trying on long pink wigs or ones made of silver tinsel. She eventually settled on a real wig, and we were both satisfied.
While I am grateful to be able to communicate with my mom almost constantly over the internet, a text does not replace human interactions. My iPhone made of cold, lifeless metals and glass is a pathetic replacement for the warmth, light and love that my mother is made of. Knowing once the red “End Call” button is pushed, my mom vanishes into the empty black mirror in my hands is both terrifying and infuriating.
This pandemic is revealing the fragility of human relationships, and just how much we truly rely on one another. At the same time, it is preventing us from truly experiencing those important bonds. We can no longer rally behind our sick loved ones in a show of steadfast love and support. We can only watch from a distance, helpless.