Four Years Out: The Day a Silent Killer Stole My Mom
This may seem like an odd first entry for a blog about the everyday life of a news anchor, but I want to share with you the day that now impacts my life every, single day. It shapes me, it reminds me, it saddens me, it warns me, and I hope when you hear this story, you will also keep the warning in the back of your head. If you are a woman or there is a woman in your life, this can impact you. It is a silent killer, and its signs are not often obvious or recognized. I implore you to take a moment and listen. Let one good thing come out of my loss – that each of you know the signs that could keep you or that woman in your life alive.
Four years ago today, cancer killed my mother, Kathi. She was 52 years old. Here in the month of October, we’re surrounded by pink everywhere to remind us of breast cancer – chances are you’ve heard of it and know how to check for it and know when to get your mammograms. I am so happy that the word is out there. It’s saving lives. But the cancer that killed my mother is one you may have heard of, but there’s no test to find it, the symptoms are usually mistaken (even by doctors) for something else, and, while there is a month for awareness, you probably don’t know when it is and you certainly don’t see teal everywhere. It’s called the silent killer. It’s called Ovarian Cancer.
But let me take you back to 2006 - a painful year for my family. It was the year I moved 17 hours away from my family for my next job in TV news; it was the year my parents’ house burned to the ground; it was the year my mom got cancer for the second time in her life. Ovarian Cancer reared its awful, ugly, grotesque head quite quietly with my mother more than one month before Christmas. She thought she had a bladder infection and went to her OB/GYN. He agreed and sent her home with some medicine to fight a bladder infection. But my mother’s symptoms did not get better, only worse. At this point, it was close to Christmas, and true to form, she didn’t want to inconvenience anyone around the holidays with her medical problems. She figured she’d deal with it quietly and go back to her doctor after the holidays. But on Christmas Eve, her pain was so immense that my family insisted on the emergency room. She balked, still not wanting to ruin the holidays for anyone, but at this point she could not resist. At the hospital, tests were ordered and we would not get the results until after the New Year.
At the start of 2007, my mother was diagnosed with late Stage III Ovarian Cancer. She was 49 years old. Later that year, she was also diagnosed with Stage I Breast Cancer. It was the second time she would battle cancer in her lifetime. She was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just after giving birth to me, her first child. Despite taking certain chemo therapies that are now banned in the U.S., she persevered and beat that cancer. My whole life, she always told me she fought like hell against that cancer because she didn’t want to leave her baby girl – me. Now, 31 years later, we were facing another monster. She began chemo right away.
She never wavered, never lost her smile and never let the cancer get the best of her. Later in 2007, I became engaged, and while she battled Ovarian Cancer, she also helped me plan my wedding. When I flew home to Georgia to go wedding dress shopping with her and my sisters, my mother came along even though at times she couldn’t get out of the car and come into the stores because her chemo left her so tired. But she was there, that was her. She never, ever missed a moment in our lives. She was determined to make it to my wedding, and in September of 2008, she was there as I stood under an arbor that overlooked a vineyard and was married. I learned later from her doctor that at one point that year, he wasn’t sure she’d make it to my wedding because he thought they’d run out of chemo treatments. Then another door opened and another treatment was tried and worked for the time being, and my mom made it to my wedding.
It was a happy and painful year. Earlier in 2008, her cancer was deemed incurable. It would be with her for the rest of her life.
In February 2009, my family took our annual ski trip. I still look back at a group picture we took on that trip – all 15 of us standing there smiling, not one of us knowing that I was pregnant. But I was, and it made my mother so happy. Her first-born was soon to become a first-time mom. She kept fighting. She wanted to meet her grandbaby. My daughter would be her third grandchild.
In late August of 2009, I flew home to Georgia to visit my mom, knowing I would soon be too pregnant to safely fly. During my trip home, she had an oncologist appointment. I went along. He told her they tumors weren’t responding to the latest chemo and they were out of options. There were no more chemo treatments left for my mommy. The doctor gave her about six weeks to live, about the time of my daughter’s due date. A few days later, we met with hospice and my mom really started coming to the realization, very painfully, that it was over. It was the first time in the two and a half year battle that I saw her spirit dim, if only a little.
She decided she wanted to travel the country in an RV, so my family and I furiously began planning the trip – renting an RV, mapping out the destinations, buying tickets to things like the Grand Ole Opry and Broadway-like shows in Vegas. I flew home to Nebraska knowing I’d see my mom in a couple of weeks. My home in Omaha was one of the stops on her journey. And she made it there - I was ?? weeks pregnant. Their last night there, I had to say goodbye. It was a very hard goodbye, but my mom assured me she’d be there to meet my little girl. But as I hugged her goodbye, she touched my pregnant belly and said, “you take care of that little girl. You take really good care of that baby.” It was the last time I would ever hug my mother.
I got the call from my sister on October 11, 2009 – my mom was gone at the age of 52. Doctors had said she would make it through the weekend, but I didn’t fly home because I was a few days shy of 38 weeks pregnant. She made it until Sunday and then the cancer won. I HATE that it did. And I hate more in the way it won. No one should die in the painful and slow manner that my mother did, certainly not the mother who sacrificed everything for her children, who never met a person who didn’t instantly like her and who was just a good person, just so good. My husband and I made arrangements to fly home to Georgia on Monday, doctor’s permission slip in hand because airline police prohibits flying as pregnant as I was.
My mother died on Sunday, I flew home on Monday, I went into labor on Tuesday.
My husband and I were more than a thousand miles away from our doctor, our hospital and our house, and I was in labor at 3:30 a.m. So off to the local hospital we went in the dark of night, my husband driving my mom's SUV and not having a clue where he was going. I had to give him directions between contractions. We arrived at the hospital and didn't even know what entrance to go to. We found locked doors twice before finding the right entrance, and yeah, I floundered up to both locked doors!
We checked in and by the time we got to a room, I turned around and there was my sister, brother and cousin in the room with my husband and me and my other sister and father on the way. We had thought we'd be delivering in Omaha with just my husband and me – calm and quiet - but I guess my mom had other ideas. So there we were, in the hospital where two years earlier they had cut cancer from my mother, in the hospital where my two nieces were born, in the hospital where my delivery nurse had also been my sister's bridesmaid - there surrounded by those who love me most and the memory of one who just couldn't stay long enough to make it. I delivered Georgia Katherine Tuesday morning – two days after my mother had died. We left the hospital on Wednesday with a borrowed car seat, a bag full of borrowed baby clothes, and hearts bursting with every emotion you can possibly imagine. We arrived at my parents' house to a borrowed crib, borrowed baby supplies and relatives arriving in town with funeral clothes and baby gifts packed in their suitcases. On Friday, my daughter and I looked down on my mother in her casket, and on Saturday we buried her. It's the only time my daughter every saw her grandmother.
My mother fought hard to live long enough to meet her granddaughter and in the end, she missed the date by two days. But life doesn't stop, and it's the beauty of my daughter's life that keeps me smiling. I do wonder though, almost every day, what my daughter's missing without such a great grandmother to love her. I try to make up for it every day.
So why tell you all this? Why am I sharing a two and a half year time in my life that ended with the worst day and best day of my life happening in a two day span? I tell you this to show you just how cancer can affect one family, just ONE family. How many thousands of families are hit like this every single day, every single year? Ovarian Cancer alone is expected to kill more than 14,000 women this year. That’s 14,000 more families with stories like mine, with holes in their hearts like mine, with days that will never be quite complete and are always “just missing something” like mine.
According to ovariancancer.org, a woman’s lifetime risk of developing invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 72, and a woman’s lifetime risk of dying from invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 95. While it is the 10th most common cancer among women, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death among women, and is the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. So please, read through these symptoms of Ovarian Cancer. Learn them, know them, remember them next time something just “isn’t right.”
The symptoms are:
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
- Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)
See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if you have these symptoms more than 12 times during the course of one month and the symptoms are new or unusual for you, according to ovariancancer.org.
CLICK HERE to learn about the risk factors.
CLICK HERE to go to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
And by the way, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month is September, and even if you don't see teal everywhere, you'll find my toenails painted that color throughout much of the year... and now you know why.
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