How One Caregiver Represented a Different Kind of ‘Sandwich Generation’

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A cancer caregiver shares how she provided support for both her daughter and mother-in-law who were being treated for breast cancer at the same time, and what she learned from those experiences.

There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about the Sandwich Generation: middle aged people taking care of their aging parents and their children at once, the filling squeezed between the layers of their needs.

In the past two years I have been in that role, but mine is a slightly different kind of sandwich. My pieces of bread were my 27-year-old daughter and my 80-year-old mother-in-law, both of whom were going through breast cancer treatment at the same time. And in December, almost two years after it all began, a bell rang somewhere and one of them got her wings.

If you could choose the characteristics that the perfect mother-in-law would have, mine had all of them and more. When I went back to work, she moved in with us and provided love and care and sneaked treats to my children after school and played cards with them when homework was done.

She was there at soccer games and graduations and celebrations and snuggled with them when they weren’t feeling well as she shooed me out the door to work. She made us laugh with her stories of being a young woman growing up on a huge family farm and how she, literally, had to carry wood to school in the mornings to warm up the room. We all loved her more than I can say.

Due to the choice to lock down completely in March, the hospital my mother-in-law was in had zero cases of COVID-19 and was still able to allow visitors for palliative care instances. I feel blessed that we were able to be with her in her last days and hours, holding her hand and running a cool cloth over her brow. I have heard and seen the stories of FaceTime goodbyes and I will never have to suffer the pain of that memory. If there is something deeper than profound, I am there because, in truth, my gratitude is undefinable.

But there is something uncomfortable I need to share, or rather say out loud. The question crossed my mind a few times when I was sitting with this woman who had given me so much. Would I be doing this again with the other layer of my sandwich?

I did my best to push it away, but it kept sneaking back in. Adrienne hit year one of remission on December 6th but there’s a long way to go before any of us can take a breath. My mother-in-law was the more classic patient with breast cancer, diagnosed at an older age well past menopause, her case of the more typical 1 in 8.

But breast cancer is what it is, and I can’t count on my daughter’s youth to save her. All her youth gives us is the possibility that a scientist will make the discovery of a lifetime and if her cancer returns it will be met with the power of a cure. So as I sat there in the silence of listening to my mother-in-law breathing more and more slowly, I wondered if the universe was preparing me for my future by honoring me with the gift of being with this amazing woman as her life ended.

Was it teaching me the lessons I need to learn so I’ll know the tricky spots along the path to avoid, making it as smooth as I can? Was it showing me how peaceful it can be? Was it reminding me exactly how precious every day my child is with me on this earth really is?

This is my life now. It’s living in “The After” where these questions will always be asked, where I create frames of reference that I would never have considered when I lived in “The Before.” It’s a club I joined whose membership has a hefty entry fee. This is my Never-ending Cancer Story: Caregiver Version.

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