Death and Breast Cancer: Preparing for the Death of a loved one
When you’re over 80 years old, as my mother is, your chance of getting breast cancer is 1 in 8. Of the eight white-haired ladies gathered around the pool, the hot Florida sun shimmering off the chlorine-blue water, statistics say one will get breast cancer—assuming none have already been touched by the disease.
If you have breast cancer, your mother’s risk is higher than that of her friends. So maybe that 1 in 8 will be her.
My mom and I, we have no problems talking about death. I know many women (and more men, it seems) who can’t approach that white-hot flame: planning for the death of parents. But my mom and I, we have no problem with it. In fact, we find her death an interesting subject for discussion. Maybe it’s because I’ve already faced death; it’s lost most of its power for me. And Mom–well, she’s experienced death, too. Just not her own—yet.
My mom is a stoic Norwegian. Growing up during the Depression she ate squirrels, because it was that or go hungry. She left the farm and lived with a family in town at age 14 so she could go to high school, doing housework and babysitting in return for room and board. Later, she went to college, married, raised a family. Her younger daughter died six years ago, putting her through the worst hell a mother can experience. Her husband of nearly 60 years died four years ago. Her son was run over by a truck and suffered brain damage. I got breast cancer.
She’s still smiling and looking forward to whatever life brings next.
The other night, Mom told me she’d written something called “If I should die before I wake.” “It includes… oh, lots of stuff. Where all my papers are, stuff like that. Things you’ll need.” Knowing my mom, it also includes gentle but direct instructions for what she’ll want done with her body. But I already know that; we’ve talked about it. She and my dad (whose ashes she’s not yet parted with), and I will all come to rest, at last, in a meadow overlooking the sea, in a town we loved, in a time when our family was whole.
Mom has seen five siblings die before her. Four have died of cancer. I wonder if she’ll get cancer, too. We talked the other night about what she’d do if she were diagnosed with breast cancer. “I’d choose not to have treatment,” she said. I didn’t argue. I might push for surgery, if it was an easy one. But why would I want her to go through the hell of chemo, or the pain and fatigue of radiation? So she could live another year? Maybe two? She’s ready, right now, to let loose her tether here on earth and go find my dad and sister. Why would I stop her?
My dad refused cancer treatment. We watched him die within 3 weeks, as the tumors choked off his breathing. Even when he could no longer speak, he “told” jokes by opening a book and pointing to them. That’s the kind of guy he was.
Knowing Mom, if she came to the end stages of cancer, she wouldn’t die regretting the life she was about to leave. She’d be looking forward with anticipation to rejoining the river of life she’s imagined so often. To starting a new adventure. Cancer wouldn’t beat her; it would take her where she wants to go.
Why would I ever want to stop her?