Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
This survivor regrets not being there when her mother passed away from metastatic breast cancer.
Five and a half years ago, I moved my parents from an assisted-living home in Iowa to an assisted-living home near me in Minnesota. I was an adult only child. Mom was 79 and Dad was 80, and they both had many health issues. We were fortunate to go from seeing each other several times per year to several times per week. My dad, who was dealing with severe dementia, passed away about a year after I moved them. Mom lived four more years.
We found her breast cancer at age 80 when I took her to my favorite prosthesis specialist who had helped me with lymphedema garments during my breast cancer. In adjusting Mom to help her find a better bra fit, the specialist found the lump. We pursued it. Mom chose to have a lumpectomy and to not pursue any additional treatment other than hormone therapy. When the breast cancer returned a couple of years later, my mom bravely faced a double mastectomy and did not choose to have reconstruction.
Mom and I enjoyed more time together. We would go have breakfast for lunch, take drives, run errands together and go to a lot of doctor appointments. I was grateful I could bring her whatever she wanted, hang out, visit with her and have lunch dates. Then the cancer came back a third time in the form of lesions marching across her skin, and upon further investigation, a brain tumor. It was now metastatic breast cancer. My heart broke. My mom was brave. In tears at the oncology surgeon's office, I asked her why she wasn't crying as I was, and her response was, "because someone I love isn't dying." I remember that we went out for ice cream at the end of that appointment.
Things happened too quickly after that. I remember one morning I stopped by as she was waking up and we shared the best hugs in the world - literally the best. I repeatedly asked if there was anything I could do for her or bring her. She had a couple of steak dinners, which was not a regular menu item in assisted living. After that, she quickly became bedridden and began to sleep a lot. My heart was breaking, we were in the middle of a downsizing move to a different home and I went back to my part-time job for the distraction.
Mom passed away in her sleep, alone, in the middle of the night in her assisted living home. I had just met again with her hospice nurse there that afternoon. We didn't know "when" in terms of hours or days, and I went home. Learn from me. Though my mom was a very private person and I always suspected she would sneak away in the middle of the night, I still felt terrible for not being there. In hindsight, I wish I had communicated to the assisted living staff that they call me, even in the middle of the night if things began to change.
I know hindsight is always 20-20. I know five years of loving care, and reconnecting and growing our relationship do not get erased by not being there those last couple of hours and the shorter visits of those last few days. Still, they were important time that I wasn't there. Now, every day I miss her. Many days I still feel bad about not being with her as much as I could have at the end. Could have, would have, should have.
Please learn from me. If you want those hours and days or you want anything else, get straight in your thoughts before those last hours and days. Communicate with your loved one in hospice and be sure to communicate your wishes with your loved one and with the staff. You can learn from my heartbreak.