Coping With Mom's Cancer: Choices Get More Complex With Age

Cancer surviving caregiver strives to support her mom through cancer.

Who is the voice for older cancer patients? What are the best choices given the complexity and variety of their health circumstances? As a cancer survivor, how can I best help my recently-diagnosed elderly mom?

I talked about my 83-year-old mom’s breast cancer diagnosis in a recent post. Now the cancer survivor is the caregiver. Mom has two areas of cancer in the same breast that had a lumpectomy for cancer three years ago. The good news from the PET scan is that her cancer hasn’t spread outside of breast. That is a blessing. We have met with her general practitioner, oncologist and breast cancer surgeon.

Mom has other health issues besides cancer and is faced with three reasonable options: do nothing (because of her age and health and it is her choice), remove the breast with the cancer recurrence (because we don’t want to get an open ongoing sore outside the breast as the cancer grows and it is her choice), remove both breasts (because it would be more comfortable for her and it is her choice).

Mom isn’t a good candidate for another lumpectomy or for chemotherapy and radiation. I wish older patients with multiple health issues had more cancer treatment options—where is a gentler radiation or a kinder chemotherapy?

As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor who is her only child, this is hard. So far, I have decided that my best way to support her is to ask the doctors good questions so that she can learn as much as she can. And after that, my job is to then support her choice regardless of my own thoughts in the matter.

There are no guarantees at 83. Well, there were no guarantees for anyone, including me at my first diagnosis at 46, but there are more surgical risks at her age. I wish there were more ways to alleviate surgical risks for older patients.

I appreciated our surgeon’s honesty as well her comments about the types of death that can happen if the breast cancer spreads to liver or bones. I will say it again—Societally, we don’t talk about and prepare for death well. It is difficult stuff, but it is part of life.

Mom has chosen to have a double mastectomy for symmetry and for comfort’s sake. I support her choice and ask questions about drain tubes and post-surgery pain, care and recovery. I am worried. We are in uncharted territory as a mother-daughter team here.

To treat my breast cancer, I only had a lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, chemotherapy and radiation. I personally know nothing about having a double mastectomy, but unfortunately and fortunately, I have friends who do. However, they were nowhere near her age or health circumstances.

I have a new respect for our caregivers. I have a new respect for fellow survivors as I am sure that I am not the only one who has been a cancer survivor and a cancer caregiver. Any and all advice in my new role is welcome. Thank you for listening.