(and every day since)
It’s August six, and I’m looking at my mom lying down on the couch, she’s snuggled around a fuzzy blanket, her skin is a little pale, her hair is scarce. She’s cold, but there’s a national heat warning, yet she’s wrapped tightly by this blanket like a newborn baby just out of the nursery. She’s tired, she keeps dosing off and then waking up again to the sound of her rapid heartbeat; she hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep since March. My dad is right next to her, the TV is on, but no one is watching. I’m going back and forth between watching her and watching him watch her; he watches her intently and unknowingly. For a second, our gaze meet one another, we’re both thinking and feeling the same thing, we both feel so helpless. There is absolutely nothing that we can do. “I love you Daya” is all I can think, and he thinks it too. We look away, because if we hold each others gaze for too long, we’ll both cry.
They were in their bedroom when I first heard them talking in low whispers. If you know my parents, then you know they aren’t the whispering type, and normally whispers indicate bad news. If you know my parents, you will also know that they are the kind of people who would keep bad news from my sister and I to “protect” us. They still see us as kids who need to be protected from the cruel, cruel world. Whispers scare me, and after losing my Nana just a year ago, I couldn’t imagine a tragedy worse. I liked to think that I was capable of handling any bad news, so I walked into my parent’s room and asked them straight on “what are you hiding from me?” “Nothing” they replied in Kurdish, but I was persistent and something in my gut was telling me to not let this one go. After going back and forth, they eventually told me that my mom had done a mammogram and an ultrasound after a routine checkup with our family doctor. My mom reassured me that there is nothing to worry about, it was just time to do her yearly exams. She even went on to say, that our family doctor had told her since they haven’t heard back from the technologists, its more than likely that there is no news, and no news is good news. My dad had a flight booked to Amman, a week from that night, so I knew almost certainly, that I had nothing to worry about, sure her results hadn’t come back yet, but the delay in her results was even more proof that there is nothing to worry about. I forgot about that night and started planning for the summer.
I was at work on a Monday morning. It was a good day, Monday is always my favourite day of the week, I’m weird like that. I get a call, it’s my mom. She’s “tired” she says, her voice is broken and quiet, she’s driving I can tell. I already knew the answer, because this isn’t my mom on the phone, it some foreign person who has taken over, my mom is never broken, she’s never this tired, so I ask “Why?” “Just come home” she replies. “Why?” I ask persistently, “I’m tired” she whispers. I instantly fell to the floor and the tears came streaming down my cheeks, I’ve lost all my sensations, my reasoning, my clarity, because I knew, I didn’t have to hear it out loud, I just knew, my mom doesn’t get tired, she just doesn’t.
When you hear the word cancer, a nuclear explosion goes off in your life, no matter who you are and where you are. You don’t realize, because you can’t realize it until it happens to you, how disruptive, chaotic, traumatic and life-shattering cancer is. It consumes your every thought, lingers in the background of every meal, it is the unspoken elephant in the room, it’s what you see when you close your eyes, it’s what you dream when you sleep, and the nightmare that you awaken from every morning. Boom.
We spent five days waiting to be seen by a specialist, it was the longest five days of my life. But I was optimistic, there’s absolutely no way that my mom’s condition is bad, at best; it is stage I, at worst; stage II. How could it ever be anything else? My mom had told two of her friends during this time, and they all had stories of a friend of a friend who had gone through the same thing, they simply had surgery and now they are living their best life, nothing to worry about they said. My Aunt back home would say cancer research is so advanced in Canada, we’ve got nothing to worry about, this is curable. And how I wished I believed them, how I wished I never took Human Aging with Cheryl Duxbury in my 4th year at UW. How I wished I skipped the cancer chapter, I just wanted to forget the line that said cancer is treatable, not curable; you can manage it, not eliminate it. I would give anything to just un-learn it all. And in those five days, I would look at my mom and hold her hand every day because she was scared, she’s never been scared before, and the lines of mother and daughter have never been ever so blurred since that moment. It was a freaky Friday situation without the body swaps; I was now the mother taking care of her daughter. The tables have turned.
Five days later we’re in an elevator, it’s my mom, her best friend and I. We’re meeting with the specialist. I had asked my mom time and time again to give me the specialist’s name, maybe I can search her up, to give me any test results she had about her diagnosis, maybe I can understand something, “I don’t know her name,” “I don’t have any results” she would say. She lied. She lied to protect me of course, but in that elevator, finally flipping through the multitude of pages of her diagnosis I did not feel protected, there were scary words that I understood and even scarier words that I didn’t understand. This is serious. This is serious and I’m angry, how could she not have shown me this? Why didn’t she go to the doctor earlier? How could she have waited this long? Because this is no stage I or stage II, this is stage serious and I was on the verge of an emotional meltdown in the elevator. And yet somehow, I needed to look okay, because I was the only thing getting in the way of my mom from completely breaking down. How could I stand in front of her and not be moved to tears?
I went into research mode, and with the delay of the specialist, we, unfortunately, had an hour and a half of researching, I was left to my devices, I was flipping between her results and google. It was not good. Google is never good. I buried myself in page after page, and my mom knew. She would ask me “Mardin, what did you find out?” And “Mardin what are you reading?” And I would persistently say, “I’m not a doctor.” I avoided her gaze because I was still going through the motions, I was still angry and I knew that would break her heart, so I had to avoid her gaze to protect her from my sadness. I had to protect my mom.
After we had met with the specialist, my mom asked me the most heart breaking question that a mother could ask her daughter, “Do you think I will survive this?” How do you respond to a question like that? And just like that my whole life flashes before my eyes; a daughter needs her mother at her graduation, on her wedding day, when she’s furnishing her first home, a daughter needs her mother when she’s a new mother to be herself, but more importantly, a daughter doesn’t have to have a reason to why she needs her mother, a daughter just does. She then continues to say, “I just want to live long enough to know that you and Hana will be okay.” My heart has never been as broken as it was in that moment.
We spent the next couple of weeks going from one hospital to the next and from one appointment to the next, I became my mother’s personal in-house nurse, learning to read her blood work, charts, trying to understand her biopsy results, bone scans and MRI’s. I’ve become so familiar with the hospital, the nurses, and with the staff, as they have of me. The hardest part of the treatment was waiting for it. Waiting, we spent about a month waiting to go to booked appointments, waiting for the results to come back, based off of the results booking further appointments, it seemed as though it was a cycle that never ended. Time was both still and quick. It seemed as though we were frozen in time, while everyone and everything else was moving at high speed. There was no time to breathe and when I could steal a moment’s breath, I would just pause and think about the reality of our situation. “How is this happening to us? How?” It wasn’t so much the how but the “Is this actually happening to us?” You hear about other families, read articles and books, watch news reports and documentaries, but never do you think that the C word would affect you, your family. And then reality smacks you right in the face. This is happening to us, and we have to face this head on.
The Diagnosis: Stage III Locally Advanced Breast Cancer
The Treatment: Chemotherapy, Surgery and finally Radiation (all 3)
The Hope: A Cure.
My sister didn’t know what was going on until about a month later. Why? Because my parents wanted to protect her. In the solemn air of our dinners, she was a ray of sunshine, cracking up jokes and poking fun at me, being playful and unknowingly taking our minds off of the C word. We all had this dark cloud hovering over us, and she was bringing life to it. Most days I was jealous, jealous that she didn’t know, but I was also sad, sad because she will eventually find out, and we would then both share in having experienced the worst day of our life, and that is nothing to be jealous of. We each took turns rehearsing how we were going to break the news to her, initially my mother was going to tell her, and I was the understudy. My mother couldn’t do it, so I ended up telling her. No amount of rehearsal will ever prepare you for breaking your sister’s heart.
It’s been 4 months now, and my mom has just completed her second to last round. She’s weaker than the previous, which had her weaker than the one before that. It’s not easy, every battle that hits us comes and goes in waves. The last round landed my mom in the ER, her second visit. After a sleepless night of vomiting, hot flashes, painful stomach aches, and vomiting again, she had fainted twice, and on the second time she had lost consciousness. The chemo was killing her soul. We were in a private room, she was lying down and hooked to an IV. “I don’t want to do this anymore” She would say between falling into and out of consciousness. She couldn’t do this anymore, the chemo was tearing her apart, and in turn tearing my heart apart.
We have one more round of chemo left. Just one more. What comes next? A series of tests, decisions, doctor appointments, surgery, radiation, and more tests. It’s a long journey, and the chemotherapy was only step 2 of the 10 we’ve got left. But I’m looking forward to witnessing my mom attend her last chemo session, I’m looking forward to having her doctor remove the PICC line that she’s had on for months, I’m looking forward to saying thank you and goodbye to everyone who has played a vital part of her treatments in the Oncology Department, but most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing her ring her chemo bell; it’s not over yet, but it is a step closer.
Now, I want to take a moment to talk about the Canadian health care system, or more specifically, OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan). As Canadians, we are fortunate to have free health care, and the common misconception, primarily within the USA, and other foreign countries, is that when healthcare, a basic human right, is free, the quality deteriorates. This couldn’t be farther from the truth in my mother’s case. Having walked into three different hospitals for my mother, for starters, I’ve never seen cleaner facilities anywhere else, with the best of the best when it comes to equipment. Appointments are true to the time slot that is assigned and the procedures are explained thoroughly before execution. Based off of the patient’s decision, a team of heroes is assembled to help guide the patient on this journey. In my mother’s case, in addition to her family doctor, she has a team of Oncologists from her chemotherapy doctor, to her surgeon, to her radiation doctor, with all of their primary nurses, and a pharmacist, a dietician, and a social worker that help with the process. Additionally, there are classes such as the chemotherapy education class, where a team of specialists walks the cancer patient and their family members through every step of the journey. And outside of the hospital, there is a tremendous support group, such as the Wellspring Wellness Centre, where they host free classes for cancer patients and cancer patient families. These classes can be anything from yoga to cooking classes, to make up classes. I would have never known where to buy a wig, and how clean is really clean when it comes to cancer patients if it weren’t for these classes. A team of heroes and angels is what they represent to me. They are the heroes working hard to save the number one hero in my life; my mom, my daya.
I hate statistics and numbers, so bear with me, because it is important to know that 1 in 8 Canadian women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. This means that when you’re out with friends at a dinner, or when you’re hosting a birthday party, look around you, because more than likely, one of you will develop breast cancer. That’s how common it is, and it won’t hit you until it crashes into your world. Women are living longer, healthier lives after a breast cancer diagnosis, but there is still so much work to be done and more research to be conducted. That being said, I’m participating in this year’s Canadian Cancer Society CIBC Run for the Cure to make breast cancer beatable. I’m running in honour of my mother, Kany, and all of the incredible women in my life.
I’m not only running for my mother, but also for my late grandmother who also had breast cancer, God rest her soul. And if you are in the GTA, I would love it if you could join my team, KANY, and run for her with us.
I am also taking donations to help fund innovative research to help save the lives of more women, and provide support programs to those affected by this disease.
This is the link to join and/or contribute to my team, KANY:
I am optimistic, I have to be. I have no choice. I can’t begin to imagine a world without my mother and I won’t. I want her to be present for all of it, every moment, every whisper, every thought, conversation, and she will be. She often feels alone tossing and turning between two lovers; Life and Death. But I want her to know she’s not alone but surrounded by a blanket of family and friends that love her and believe in her strength, that she will fight cancer and beat it, no matter how weak and defeated she feels. Although it’s difficult to put into words the range of emotions and feelings in addition to each individual battle that a cancer patient goes through, I hope that you, the reader, the sister, the friend, the confident, will leave this article with a clearer understanding of cancer.
To my mother, my daya, my hero, I love you.
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