Finding Loveliness in Cancer

Inspiration from the Last Year of My Mother's Life

Posted by Nancy Lee on August 29, 2020

If you saw my mother today, you might focus on the toll cancer has taken on her body. You would see a frail shadow of a woman lying in a hospital bed in her apartment, clinging to the little bit of life she has left. But I fear that you would miss her loveliness altogether.

I would rather introduce you to my mother a year ago, in August of 2019. Before her final diagnosis.

My mother, Elizabeth Brewer, even then, was a victor and survivor. She had raised 5 children and had been the caregiver to her husband before he passed away in 1996. She had endured breast cancer and several broken bones, including a broken hip.

But then something started to show up in her bloodwork, those awful things called “tumor markers” indicating that the cancer was spreading. At that point, it was just a number on a paper, just a lab result. The official term, we were told, was metastasized breast cancer.

Finally, her doctor decided it was time to try chemo. I had my misgivings. My mother was a petite little thing weighing barely 100 pounds. But I took her for the treatment. Fifteen minutes into the drip, she was in severe pain – an unexpected complication. The nurses wanted her to come back and try again the next day. Instead, she requested an appointment with the palliative care doctor who helped set her on a course of managing her cancer by altering her diet.

Mom also did her own research, changed her diet drastically, and stuck to it. For six years, she lived a productive and healthy life without needing any cancer treatments. She was doing so well we forgot about her diagnosis of metastasized breast cancer.

Then one day she had a very mild symptom which she brought up to her eye doctor. She was losing part of her vision in one of her eyes. The doctor ran some tests, and couldn’t make sense of the results, so she ordered an MRI.

I came over on the day she got the results. She printed a copy of the test off, set the paper on the counter, and casually said, “Do you want to see the results of my MRI?”

I read the paper, and, though I didn’t know what meningeal carcinomatosis was, I knew it was a form of cancer; I knew it meant that her cancer was back. I called her oncologist and was given an appointment two days later.

What the doctor had to say at that appointment was worse than all the scenarios I had imagined in my mind. The doctor explained that “meningeal carcinomatosis” is cancer in the lining of the brain. She told us there is nothing we could do except take steroids to keep the brain from swelling. “Expect any possible symptom,” she said, “like a stroke, loss of senses, seizures, or paralysis.”

On the way out the door, I asked the doctor if I should move her 90th birthday party from next July to Thanksgiving. “I doubt she’ll make it that long,” was her reply.

We cried together on the way home. My son came over and worked on a project with his Grandma while I called the other family members, giving them the grim news.

When it started getting late, I lingered at the door for a long time. Finally, I blurted out, “Mom, I don’t want to leave you!”

“Well, Nancy,” she said, “I’m no different than I was yesterday, only now I will wake up every morning thanking God for a new day.” 

And that is exactly how she has lived every day since. She didn’t tell me every morning, “I am thanking God for a new day.” She simply lived it. That was her style. She approached each day as an opportunity to live life to the fullest.

A month into her diagnosis she was already visibly weaker, but she was still able to accompany me to California to attend a family wedding. She was thrilled to see her grandchildren, and she was especially happy to meet three new great-grandchildren for the very first time.

When we got back home, she fell into a routine. Her hospice nurse came once a week to regulate her medications and symptoms. Mom continued participating in activities she enjoyed like baking, doing jigsaw puzzles, and attending Bible studies and yoga classes with minimal help.

She managed surprisingly well for the first six months, astounding all her doctors and nurses. We had a family party to celebrate. Shortly after she came down with shingles, which totally wiped her out. She was suddenly dealing with extreme pain and weakness.

The next six months became a continuous struggle. I started staying with her all day and hiring out the night shift. But she approached this new phase just as she had before, striving to make the most of each new day, remaining pleasant and polite, smiling through all of it.

During this time, she was quarantined to her apartment for three months due to COVID-19, and her other three daughters and son were not allowed to visit. Each time she fell into a slump, I was worried she wouldn’t make it through to see her other children again. Finally, when the ban was lifted, she had a wonderful reunion with all her children and many grandchildren.

A few weeks later, we had an even greater unexpected blessing—- we were able to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday.

We kept her party simple. Just her immediate children came on her birthday, with other family members visiting throughout the weekend. We decorated her apartment with flowers, ribbons, and balloons, and served her favorite food. She sat on her recliner like a princess on a throne, smiling and thanking each of us.

The highlight came when my sister sat next to her and opened and read cards to her from all the out-of-town relatives. She beamed with excitement and exclaimed, “I can’t believe so many people remembered my birthday!”

A few days ago, the cancer started getting the upper hand. My mother is now bedridden and failing fast. Today she asked me for water, and, even though it took every ounce of her energy, I heard her utter a faint, “Thank you.” And when I kissed her on the forehead, she looked up at me with her crystal blue eyes and smiled.