Part 1: How Ovarian Cancer Beat My Mother
By Suja S. Amir
Freelance Wirter – United States
The word cancer strikes a chilling chord with most people. It sends out the message of fear and death. It creates mental images of the physical side effects of chemotherapy and the flashing symbol of “radiation”.
Cancer, although extremely prevalent in Western society, is unfortunately a condition that educates most only after direct experience through friends, family or other loved ones. My education about cancer was no different. My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on the 29th of August 2008. From that point on, everything was different.
Prior to the 29th, my mind was on other things. Ramadan was on its way and I was excited. I have a habit of “practicing” fasts to prepare my mind and body for Ramadan and this year, it was more important for me since the days were longer. I started my practice fast mid-August and shortly after my first few, I got a call from my mother saying she was admitted to the hospital for abdominal pain. She was admitted by her gastroenterologist, a physician who is specialized in treating disorders related to the digestive system.
The normal worries ran through my mind about the possibilities of my mother’s condition. At 68, she was in pretty good health. My mother’s occupation as a registered nurse meant she was extremely vigilant about her health and check ups. Recently, my mom was even more conscientious about her health as my father had passed at age 70 (of natural causes) in February 2007. She had high blood pressure and had her thyroid removed six months prior, but nothing that stood out.
There wasn’t a family history of any other condition that crossed my mind. She had mentioned some earlier symptoms to me, but they were vague. Abdominal distention, early satiety (feeling full early), and bloating all seemed to point towards a gastrointestinal problem. She had gotten every test known prior to her admission and everything was normal before August.
A Harsh Reality
When the final diagnosis came on the 29th of August, it felt like I was hearing something about someone else, someone else’s family. This couldn’t possibly be happening to my mother. It was a harsh reality to face. Listening to the doctor explain the diagnosis, the treatment plans and the outlook felt extremely unreal. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage IIIc (the cancer metastases are larger than 2 centimeters). For all intents and purposes, that didn’t make much sense to me. Although the doctor took his time and explained everything very eloquently, I was still a bit “shell shocked”.
After I put down the phone, I did what most of us do. I went to the “Google Dr.” and searched for some answers. I had a ton of questions. Questions like, why wasn’t this caught earlier? What tests could she have gotten to find out about this earlier? Weren’t there some signs to tell her that this was going on? Why did they only find out so late in the stage of ovarian cancer? What is chemotherapy? Will chemotherapy cure her? Is there a genetic component?
The list of questions just went on and on through my mind. As I did my internet research, I kept seeing a phrase that just sent chills every time I saw it. Ovarian cancer is sometimes called the “silent cancer”. I thought, silent? Silent??? That’s the LAST thing you want to hear about any medical diagnosis. And given the severity of any cancer, silent is not what comes to mind. You want to know that there are identifiable symptoms and tests. You want to know that there are tests that can accurately diagnose in order to optimize the treatment plans. But everything I was reading or hearing from the doctors as the days went on did not give me much more to go on. I was left with the idea that my mom was in agonizing pain from a “silent” cancer, a cancer that essentially crept up on her over a matter of weeks.
Chemotherapy was ordered because the doctors felt the tumor was too large for operation and felt chemotherapy would help shrink the tumor. My mother’s abdomen was extremely distended and looked as if she was about seven months pregnant. Oddly, her abdomen had looked normal only a few weeks prior. My brother and I sat with her, watching how she was grappling with the idea of cancer. My mother was now dealing with a situation she could not understand herself. My mother’s thirty years as a registered nurse, who took care of patients with worse conditions, did not know how to be on the other side.
As Ramadan started, my anxiety went up about how I was going to manage being able to help my mom and fast. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that Allah doesn’t place a burden on a person greater than he/she can bear. I knew that fasting would drain me, but looking back, I doubt that I would have been able to focus if I was not fasting. Fasting sharpened my goals and sharpened my mind towards Allah. Fasting allowed me to ignore the worldly distractions that kept arising daily.
One night, as I sat next to my mother holding her hand a few days after her chemotherapy, I was gazing at the TV above her bed and just sat there, dumbfounded at the TV program. It was a telethon for cancer. “Stand Up To Cancer.” What? Ironically, the month of September is Cancer Awareness month. I was sitting there, by her bedside, just watching these people talk about all types of cancers, the need for awareness, the need for research and it just felt unreal.
It was only a few days after the chemotherapy treatments that my mother’s condition worsened. The outlook was grim. She was not improving and the pain of this tumor pressing on her internal organs was making it more difficult to breath. My brother, a cardiologist, who had taken time off to help with my mom had started looking more and more worried. I saw his frustration and helplessness. It must have been torturous for him to be a trained medical professional, but not have any idea or ability to help rid my mom of the pain she was experiencing. We sat next to her as the days passed, with nothing more than hugs, kisses and prayers to offer. No amount of medicine, visits from nurses or doctors were helping her condition.
Her oncologist came in one day to meet with us and said, “I was really hoping that the chemotherapy would have shrunk this tumor by now. But this is the most aggressive case of ovarian cancer I have ever seen. It is probably best to just make her comfortable now.” With that, my brother’s face just went pale. None of us wanted to give up on her ability to fight this disease, least of all my brother. He had been trying so hard to be there for my mom the way he felt my father would have wanted him to be. I know he took this as some sort of failure on his part, but it really was God’s will.
We moved her to hospice care and she was moved to our house. My kids decided they needed to be close to her and used her room as a play room. She died on September 14th, 2008. I was blessed with three weeks with my mother from the time of diagnosis to the time she left this world. I was blessed because I was given time to spend with her before she left us. I had time to talk to her, express my feelings to her and tell her exactly how much she meant to me. After all that has happened, I am left with the cloud of cancer, which is now “in the family”.
Education about ovarian cancer is important and any woman should educate herself as much as she can about it. Next week I will tell you what I’ve learnt in the second part of this series.
Suja S. Amir has a B.S. in Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has ten years of experience in nonprofit management in the US. She can be reached by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.