Sharing cancer with my mother

May 14, 2017


When I called my parents in mid-July 2015 to tell them my brain tumor had returned after fifteen years, it was as much informational as panic or worry. Sure, it was cancer, but the tumor was less than the size of a worn-down eraser on the end of a pencil; the operation, scheduled for a few days away, would be simple and quick, with no need for radiation. No reason to make a fuss.


Just as most parents would, my mother asked if they could make the ten-hour drive to come help.


The question hung there, unanswered, with only awkward silence between us.


In my defense, it’s not like I was prepared for the situation. It had been two days of emotional whack-a-mole, no matter how cool my self-perception. In hindsight, it was clear that I desperately wanted it all to be no big deal.


It was also obvious what Mom wanted me to answer.


When my first cancer hit, Evan had been just a month old and Kyle was three years, so her visits were invaluable. But this was different. The boys were in high school now. We were self-sufficient. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to drive ten hours only to sit around feeling useless.


“It’s probably not necessary,” I finally said.


I could tell right away they were both hurt. Rejected.


When I got off the phone, Rachelle chided me. With time to reflect, I realized how important their support was to me and how important it was for them, and especially Mom, to be able to give it. Ten minute later I was back on the phone, slogging through the swamp of my earlier insensitivity to convince them I really wanted them to come after all. Mom hates to think she’s imposing.


They did come, and then Mom came twice more as well, when the simple one-step operation blossomed into several more surgeries for brain infection and skull plate/plastic surgery. She was always a calm and quiet presence, helping where needed, asking little. It was all about us.


Then, the sledgehammer fell.


We found out in the fall of 2016 that while she had been tending me earlier that year, cancer had been growing in her. What first exhibited as pain in her back and hip turned out to be stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her rib, hip and liver. The verdict: six months to live. Which is, when you think about it, ludicrous. Six months from when, exactly? They didn’t even know when it started. How could they know when it would end?


My mother had helped heal me and now she was dying. It felt like the cancer was contagious. I felt guilty.


Suddenly, out of nowhere, my mother and I had a closer bond that we would have imagined. Especially at the beginning when it was fresh and intense, I could try to offer support that would help her by reflecting back the support she had offered me.


She is now on a daily pill that is miraculously shrinking her tumors. For as long as that works, we get to be there for each other. She’s determined to live five more years, to eighty; I don’t have an end date in mind. Both of us live without the word “cure” in our vocabulary.


In the mean time, we get to be there for each other. I pray when the time comes, be it a year or three or five or beyond, we have the strength to again be there for each other.


Happy mother’s day, Mom. Gratefully, your son, Brad.

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