How do you cope when a parent is ill? You look after them by bringing them soup and doing more chores and running errands normally. But what happens when you have a parent who is sick with an illness that can’t be fixed by soup? How do you cope when your parent is living with an illness that is not yet terminal but cannot be cured? It’s an illness paradox that I find myself in every day.
When I was doing my Junior Cert my mother was diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer. It’s an aggressive form of breast cancer which normally ails younger women. My mother was 45 when she was diagnosed. She went through chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as a mastectomy and eventually she was declared clear.
She had a 25% of reoccurrence and if it did come back, the chances were it couldn’t be cured. Just a few months after she celebrated 5 years of being clear, the cancer came back. That was nearly 2 years ago and since then she’s had more treatments of less severe chemotherapy and she has regular scans to see how she’s doing. Right now the cancer isn’t getting bigger but it isn’t getting smaller either. Right now, we’re at an impasse where when the medicine stops working, the illness will become terminal but we’re not at that point yet despite the fact that we know it will come one day.
When you have an illness that you know will kill you eventually, you need to live the best possible life you can. My mother has taken this on in a big way. In the last 2 years both herself and my dad have travelled to Laos, Cambodia, India and Thailand as well America, Tenerife, Lanzarote and Spain. Her attitude is not one of despair but one of (for lack of a better phrase) YOLO. She wants to try scuba diving and golf and basically everything under the sun. It’s a great way to be.
However, there is a problem when you’re not the one suffering from the illness but you seem to worry about it more. I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder in 2015 so naturally I pretty much worry about everything. In fact when my mum told me that the cancer was back, I almost immediately thinking about a eulogy at her funeral. It’s quite a disturbing process and something that causes me a lot of anxiety which I had more or less got under control last year.
Essentially I ended up crying all the time for long periods and was feeling incredibly sad all the time and having more anxiety attacks then I had had before. When I went back to my therapist last year she told me I was suffering from pre-emptive grief. Essentially my anxiety was making me grieve for my mother. Anyone who knows me knows I’m very organised and good with deadlines. I was so organised in fact I was grieving for something that had yet to pass.
So how do you come out of that exactly? The truth is that you don’t really. My mum and I have had frank discussions about what will happens when the time comes. She wants to be medicated up to her eyeballs which I can get behind. I cannot predict how I’m going to cope with it but given the early grieving, I have a small idea of what it could be like. Thinking about what life will like when your mum is gone when she’s actually still alive is quite morbid, so I try to avoid it. That being said, it does always sit there in the back of my mind, quietly reminding me of what’s to come.
If my mother has taught me anything (and she’s taught me a great deal), it’s that she tends to be right. When I confessed my feelings to her she sat me down and told me there was no point in worrying about her. She is well capable of looking after herself and me too. Neither of us can control if and when the medication stops working for her. We just have to keep going and both try and live our best lives together while we have that time.
Last week she sent me a WhatsApp message asking me if I wanted to go to Ringsend with her to try out scuba diving. That is the kind of best life I’m talking about.
Rachel O’Neill – Editor