01/02/2013 12:48 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

In Spite of It All: Loving My Grandma Through the Cancer

The last time I was visiting my grandma by myself, I hated it. I was driving her to an oncologist appointment, in my car, and she insisted on lighting up a cigarette knowing exactly how I felt about the smell. I watched her flick the lipstick-tipped cigarette's ashes into the pristine ashtray. At least she rolled down the window, I told myself. And, Oh yeah, she has cancer. The cancer became the family's way of justifying and excusing her unwarranted nasty behavior. What was once a chocolate-chip-cookie-baking, "honeybunch"-cooing, sweet-smelling grandma became a bipolar stranger who accused us of wanting to put her in a nursing home.

After she was diagnosed with cancer, instead of loving being with her (as I usually did), I hated it. It seemed the more the cancer progressed, the crankier she became. "I'm dying" was her excuse for feeling free to say whatever the hell was on her mind, no matter who it hurt or what the consequences might be. I hated the cancer for turning her into this person I didn't want to be around.

My mom became the support structure for the family, emailing us links to helpful blogs and websites with advice on how to deal with a family member with cancer. I skimmed over the websites, but because I didn't see anything relatable, I didn't invest a lot of time in them, and thus had the shock of my life when I was visiting her for the first time alone, and saw a different person. I was blindsided and took everything she said to heart, especially the nasty comments, which definitely tarnished our close relationship. I was constantly second-guessing my actions and what I said, and thinking her unpleasant behavior was my fault. Little did I know she was awful to everyone.

I couldn't wait to get into town, which was 45 minutes away from her house in the middle of nowhere. I missed civilization and people. Not too long ago, I loved our alone time, but now I walked on eggshells, afraid of whatever topic she would bring up next. When I was alone with her, everything seemed so far away. I was isolated and had no idea how to handle her.

It was my first time taking her to Cancer Care Northwest, which I'd heard nothing but good things about from Gran. Today was the first day she was going without wearing a beanie, which she wore once she started losing her hair, and there were scraggly pieces of white hair poking up out of her head. Seeing her like this made her seem vulnerable somehow; sad. I wondered how she was dealing with the dying process. Half of the time, she was a warrior who seemed to have come to peace with her predicament, but the other half, I could see the worry in the wrinkles on her face.

As we walked slowly into the building, I realized I'd grown out of caring what people thought of her. She was such a character and drew attention everywhere we went. Those days of going into town painfully aware of her colorful outfits with the holes she never bothered to sew up, barn-stained shirts, and Birkenstocks were over. Now, as I watched her small frame wobble up to the entrance, I couldn't care less what she looked like. I felt my face flush as I remembered ever being embarrassed of her. But as much as I wanted to be there for her, wanted to be a part of this process, her two-sided personality made it a challenge.

For so long she was a role model for me. I spent my summers with her, admiring the independent woman running 25 acres in the middle of nowhere, fearless and strong. She was unstoppable and I never saw her cry, so it was startling the day she saw a current photo of herself and was so shocked at how the cancer had changed her that she started to cry. It hurt to hear her say she didn't like how she looked. This is how the cancer changed her: bitter and scolding one moment, vulnerable and childlike the next. It was difficult to see her so miserable, and confusing to hear her call me "Mom" several times. Phone calls and emails from my mom reassured me Gran's behavior was normal for a cancer patient, but I was still dealing with it alone and with no resources.

It's something a lot of cancer articles don't mention. The physical effects are one thing -- losing hair and weight, pale skin color, no appetite or energy -- but I came to learn it changes a person more than just physically. The small things had once meant so much to Gran, making it easy for her to be happy. A cup of hot chocolate, a nuzzle with one of her goats, clean sheets that had been sun-dried on the clothesline, etc. Nothing could ever get her down until the cancer spread through her system, changing her in a million tiny ways.

One night, my mom and I were falling asleep to the sound of the rain when the TV in the living room came blaring on abnormally loud. I knew Gran hadn't gone deaf, so I went to ask her to turn it down. I had barely gotten a word out when she said "No" in a very stern voice, clearly not afraid to offend us with her unwillingness to compromise. Spouting off rude comments, only to forget an hour later that she'd ever said them, was a whole new type of whiplash. Because she couldn't be held accountable for her words, I had to learn to let the negatives bounce off.

The struggle to adjust to a cancer patient's personal behavioral changes and the person the cancer creates is not often warned of in articles. I learned on my own that when Gran had her nasty, insensitive moments, I had to see beyond them and realize that below the part-time monster she became, the grandma I loved was still there. The good parts were just dispersed in bits and pieces, making it a hunt keeping watch for them. And when those pieces did show themselves, they reminded me why I loved her.

Perhaps one of my biggest regrets is that I wasn't there for Gran as much as I could've been. If I'd spent the time researching "chemo brain," I would've been better equipped to respond to her and not beat myself up over our more rocky moments. Looking back and seeing all the places I could've improved my "bedside manner" is not an easy thing to do. I can only hope that, one, she knew I was trying my best, and two, I handle the situation better should, heaven forbid, another family member be diagnosed with cancer.

When I think about all the years I have left without her, my heart falls to my stomach. I would give anything to be back reliving all our times together. I know no one will ever make me feel like she did again. And I miss that.