Walking the Dogs: Coping With Cancer Fears

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My mother chose to live by asking for help, and so can I.

Image by Jeff Salmore

My mother told me that when she and my father were getting divorced, she walked the dog a lot. I think what she said was, "I walked that dog for miles and miles." My mother was so anxious about the divorce and her uncertain future, she said walking was the only thing that kept her from jumping out of her own skin. I can't blame her. At that point, she had been married for 16 years and had not held a job for as many years. She was about to venture out alone, loading the car up with four children and a dog.She was going to this new life with not much money and no for-sure way to support that crew of kids. No wonder she walked the dog so much.

I can definitely identify with my mom, since I've had many of my own moments of fear and uncertainty in life. But until now, I've never dealt with anything as challenging as stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Cancer is a whole new level of uncertainty and fear. Sometimes I'm OK in that fear, the anxiety ebbing low. Other times, the fear sweeps over me, puts me on alert, slows my breathing, buzzes through my brain. It's at that point that I think of my mom out walking our dog. And like my mom, I leash up my own dogs and I walk. Walking helps, each step acting like a rock tumbler, smoothing the edges of my panic.

My mom taught me another lesson. When she was younger, she was a frightened woman, raised by two critical and angry parents, her gentle soul retreating into a place of doubt and trepidation. She grew up to be a frightened, yet independent, woman. She was too frightened to drive, too frightened to change, too frightened and independent to admit she needed help. My grandfather often began sentences with, "I don't mean to be critical, but ..." the words following anything but gentle or kind. The sad part was that when my grandfather eventually died, my mother commented that her father was the "nice" parent. It was at that point I realized more fully what she had experienced as a child.

My mother had her demons and the way she quieted the demons was food addiction (in her case, it was compulsive overeating). Food addiction ruled her life and almost took it, pushing her into diabetes, kidney failure and arthritis so bad both knees had to be replaced. She lapsed into breathing difficulties so severe she could only survive on oxygen, her life limited to the end of a 100-foot tube. When the addiction almost claimed her life, she had a an awakening and she sought help from Overeaters Anonymous (OA). With the aid of a food sponsor, whom she called every day to commit her food plan, OA meetings and working the 12 Steps, my mother achieved food sobriety, a healthy weight and her health issues resolved. Once she achieved sobriety, she began to be happy in her life. Really happy. The happiest I had ever seen her.

When asked what happened, why she went to OA, she would reply, "I would look at the Twinkie in my hand and tell myself, I can eat the Twinkie or I can breathe."

The response was humorous, but didn't truly capture the importance of my mother's actions. My mother had chosen life instead of death. Her message was one of hope. Her message was that it was OK to ask for help. Accepting help keeps us alive.

Like my mother, I am fiercely independent and I can dwell in fear. I do not want to be a burden or dependent. I am afraid to ask for help. But here I am, in a situation where I have no choice. In order to stay alive, I must ask for and accept help. At these moments, when I’m too scared to ask for help or take the hand offered to me, I look at my mother’s example. This frightened and independent woman chose life by asking for and taking help every day. The life she led was finally one of serenity and peace. My mother deserved that peace and so do I.

My mom is no longer here; she died of a stroke in 2008. I hold her love in my heart. Her strength to reach out and keep reaching out is something I will never forget. I can only hope that in my own struggle against a terrifying illness that will eventually kill me, I have the strength to reach out as well. Admitting limits never hurt anyone and it actually can save your life. My mom taught me that.

I miss you, Mom. I’ll do my best to follow in your footsteps. In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I’ll be out walking the dogs.