When thinking back to September 2001, most people recall the tragic September 11 attacks on the United States. But when I look back 12 years, I recall a personal tragedy -- the beautiful September day my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
I was just a teenager at the time, naively ignorant of how such a disease could wreak havoc on a person's body, mind, and life. It took me years -- almost a decade -- to learn how to cope with my mom's cancer and the unrelenting challenges of life-or-death uncertainty. My mom's war on cancer is not over, but as I reflect on the struggle I've endured alongside her, five insights stand out.
1) Doctors don't have all the answers -- and that's okay.
My mom was lucky to be in the care of some of the nation's top oncology physicians, who initially seemed to have all the answers. They gave us treatment recommendations along with a roadmap to follow based on the best known standards of cancer care. But as one treatment after another failed to eradicate, or at least contain the cancer, the doctors became less and less confident in their recommendations. They began leaving ever more complex decisions in the hands of my mom -- likely because they themselves were not sure of the direction my mom should take.
At the time, I was upset with my mom's doctors for not telling her what to do. But in hindsight, I'm so thankful that they handed the reins, along with all pertinent information, over to my mom to make the decisions that best fit her needs and values. And in my mom's case, that meant fighting for life no matter the toll it would take on her life.
2) Sometimes mom won't want to talk about it -- and that's okay.
In trying to understand this life-altering, life-threatening disease, I dived into the research. I wanted to know the statistics, the risks and benefits associated with every treatment option, the side effects my mom would face, and the potential for alternative choices. For a long time, my mom's cancer was top of mind, no matter what else was happening in my own life. But while immersion in the topic was my coping mechanism, my mom had a very different method of dealing: living her life as normally as possible, no matter the anxiety, pain or nausea.
She was superwoman. My mom thoughtfully scheduled all of her treatments -- surgeries and chemotherapy -- on Thursdays or Fridays so she could take the weekend to recover. Radiation therapy was always scheduled first thing in the morning so she could immediately head to work from the hospital. And though I know my mom suffered, trying to maintain her old lifestyle while battling against a life-or-death disease, I learned that she found hope in her ability to overpower the cancer. The best way to help my mom was not to focus on the elephant in the room, but rather, it was to focus on her, despite the elephant in the room.
3) The majority of people don't know how to support someone facing such a tragedy -- and that's okay.
Following my mom's diagnosis, I lost a lot of friends. Especially for teenagers, cancer is uncomfortable to talk about. Few of my friends knew what to say to me -- whether to ask about my mom or avoid the topic for fear of upsetting me. Unfortunately, rather than simply express their support, many of those individuals faded out of my life. But even as some friendships diminished, those that were most valuable to me developed and grew.
4) Mom won't be the same ever again -- and that's okay.
Twelve years ago, I loved my mom. She was my go-to partner in tennis and ping-pong. She was the world's best paper editor. She was the ultimate sidekick for a shopping trip. And she ranked among my top five favorite chefs. But today, mom can't handle all that activity. She's weaker than she once was. Her body is fragile. But she's also stronger than ever. Her spirit is resilient and her determination to live is steadfast. Mom is not the same person she was twelve years ago. She's better.
5) I won't be the same ever again -- and that's okay.
At some point in my life, I was carefree. I had a plan, and I knew exactly how I would wind up at my destination. But my mom's diagnosis took me off my straightforward path and onto one full of detours and obstacles. Though I can't say I've appreciated each twist and turn along the way, I can say that I appreciate each moment that has brought me to today.
There's no doubt in my mind that I chose to join eFuneral, an Internet startup re-shaping the death care industry, at least in-part, because of my experiences on this journey with my mom. Prior to my mom's diagnosis, death was something that happened to other people. Death was reserved for the old. But over the past 12 years, I've learned that death is just as much unavoidable as it is unpredictable. I can't imagine that losing a loved one would ever be easy, but my hope in working with eFuneral is that I can help people through one of the most painful experiences of their lives.
I never in a millions years thought I would thank my mom's cancer, but I am grateful for the perspective it's enabled me to gain. My life will never be the same because I'll be happier appreciating the blessings in my life -- like my mom.
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