Missing Important Cancer Anniversaries and Grieving During COVID-19

January 27, 2021
Debbie Legault
Debbie Legault

Mother, grandmother, librarian, military spouse, family life educator, take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. Her latest role is as the author of “Mom...It's Cancer”, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

COVID-19 has robbed us of the physical ways we remember important milestones on the cancer journey and the physical ways we need to mourn.

After my daughter, Adrienne finished her last dose of chemotherapy the next part of the treatment was surgery to take out the lymph nodes in her left armpit. There was so much anxiety leading up that particular surgery, Adrienne’s first surgery seven months earlier included a sentinel lymph node biopsy which was supposed to indicate if the cancer had spread. The joy we felt when those lymph nodes came back clear is hard to describe, but a short time later her radiation oncologist told the team he had some concerns about one of the lymph nodes higher up in her armpit and a needle biopsy showed that it was cancerous. When they talk about cancer treatment being a roller coaster ride this is a perfect example. We went from the excitement of climbing up a very big hill to the terror of flying down the other side, with the knowledge that the cancer had indeed spread past the lump in her breast.

In a way, I’m glad that I had something immediate to focus on in the weeks following the surgery because I don’t think I have ever been as afraid as I was that all that she had gone through sitting in that chemo chair had not slain the dragon. I was a wicked taskmaster making sure she did all the exercises she was supposed to, I measured fluids and I even dispensed medication.I have no medical background other than patching up scraped knees and laying cool cloths on feverish heads, but as a Star Trek fan, my favorite way to express the role I took on was to channel Leonard McCoy by joking with my daughter: “Damn it, Jim, I’m not a nurse. I’m a LIBRARIAN!”

So, on December 6th, 2019, we went to the surgeon’s office for a post-op checkup. I could see the lymph node results sitting on his desk and was very tempted to take a look, but I realized that if the results were positive for cancer I’d probably start some ugly sobbing so I thought it best to wait. The surgeon came into the room as my daughter was getting dressed and before he sat down in his chair said the most magical words in the world to me.

No Evidence of Disease. Remission. It worked.

My daughter Adrienne is not a hugger by nature. She has learned along the way that her mother is the Queen of Hugging so if we are in the same place, she knows it’s coming and gracefully allows me to hold her close and breathe her in. So, December 6th, 2020 was a very big day for both of us. One year down, four to go. It would have been a day when I would have made sure that I was with Adrienne so that I could wrap my arms around her and cry with relief and joy. But instead on December 6th, 2020, I was in a hospital room hugging my 82-year-old mother-in-law as I reconciled the fact that the metastatic breast cancer, she had been receiving ongoing treatment for was within days going to take her life. I realize how lucky I was to be able to be there. The hospital she was in had locked down completely in March when COVID-19 was raging for the first time because it was a cancer center. Since they had experienced zero cases in the months that followed, I was gifted with being able to hold her hand as she took her last breath.

COVID-19 has once again locked the world down, and the list of things I want to mark with Adrienne keeps growing. There are so many hugs in my arms that need to be expressed that it’s almost a physical ache. In just under two months the biggest anniversary of all, the day she heard the news that she had breast cancer, the day I first heard her tearful voice on the phone, is coming. I keep hearing that states of emergency are being extended and all I can do is hope that COVID will be contained enough that I can be with her on that day.I wasn’t there the first time because we were both in denial, and because of COVID I wasn’t with her last year on the first anniversary, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted that I would be sitting here wondering if I will be able to do it now. Because she has already told me she needs me there.

I know loved ones are being lost, new cancer diagnoses are being made and people are having to deal with all the emotions that come with it alone. I know my world is very small in the grand scheme of things, that there are much bigger issues at play in the world and people are suffering much worse circumstances. Right now, if I were granted three wishes my first two would be worldly ones like ending hunger and finding a cure for all diseases. But for the third, I would selfishly save it just for me. I only have one wish. I just want to hug my daughter.