I knew virtually nothing about cancer until I became a caregiver for my aunt Carolyn, who died of colorectal cancer in 2000.
Illness binds families closer together. I was asked to take my turn as her caregiver when she returned from her many stays in the hospital. I was a freelance writer at time and readily agreed to spend the night at her house during one summer in the late 1990s. I saw, up close and personal, the dreadful effects of this deadly disease.
Aunt Carolyn was in her 80s at the time. I thought how cruel cancer could be for someone who should be enjoying retirement, but instead was facing a life-threatening disease. It was just not fair!
Little did I know it then, but I would be diagnosed with prostate cancer approximately 15 years later and I would again think how unfair it was. Cancer had steamrolled its way into my life, wrecking my own plans for a blissful retirement, I thought.
My journey with aunt Carolyn lasted about three years. Three years of serving as her caregiver or visiting her in the hospital or rehabilitation center. Three years of witnessing first-hard how cancer wore her down.
Health concerns dominated her life. On top of the cancer, she had macular degeneration. Due to her serious problems with eyesight, she was no longer allowed to drive; I remember the day the neighbor parked her car in the garage for good. It’s never a pretty sight watching someone losing their independence when their car keys are taken away.
It’s also no pretty sight to witness a relative whom you love unable to feed herself at the nursing home where she was a resident for several weeks. On a visit during the lunch hour one day, I saw aunt Carolyn drooping over a substantial meal of roast beef, steamy mashed potatoes and a vegetable, along with the dessert and drink. She had not eaten a single bite. Cancer and other health problems now dominated her last days and I thought again, how unfair this all is!
Cancer and the physical weakness and complications that accompany it proved to be a deadly combination for my dear sweet aunt. Pneumonia set in once again, landing her back in the hospital. She passed away in a darkened room tethered to many humming and beeping machines.
When I delivered my eulogy at her funeral, I wanted to sound upbeat and paint a picture of the precious relative who did indeed enjoy a good quality of life despite her health woes.
I told the assembled family: “Sometimes you get to know someone the best when they are at their most vulnerable. I got to know a woman who, despite many physical setbacks, continued to live her life with grace, dignity and humor.
“We all admired her strong fight against ill health that left her weak, yet hopeful to spend more time with her cherished animals, Loretta the cat and Cricket the dog.”
But what I did not say, yet harbored in my heart, was that her final days were spent in pain and suffering. Cancer wreaked havoc on her life and ours and it was just not fair.
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