September 11, 2012, the day my life would change….again. On September 10th I was on the west coast for vacation. Driving down the coast of California, hiking, taking in the sites, going off the grid. I was staying at some off the beat hotel and my mom called me. “Hey honey, first of all I want you to know I’m okay.” Historically in our family if a conversation starts off with that sentence, everything is not okay. It was usually our go to sentence before we told our parents that we had wrecked our cars. Needless to say I knew something was wrong. My mom had developed a very high heart rate during the day and went to urgent care. They were afraid she may be having a heart attack so she was sent to her local emergency room. Thankfully she was not having a heart attack, but her blood work showed that her hemoglobin level was at a 4.7.(normal hemoglobin levels for women range form 12.0-15.5 g/dL) Let me back up and say that for a few months leading up to this my mom had seemed to be battling some sort of respiratory infection which made her short of breath very easily, she had lost a good bit of weight, and she was lethargic(which was not like her). I was a nurse at the time, and I had been convinced that it was her thyroid medicine being off. This happened every so often and they just had to adjust the doses. So, when she told me she was in the hospital I thought, “ok finally they are going to get all of this adjusted. nobody ever listens to the nurse.” Turns out I was wrong, and I still feel guilty about that.
The next day, September 11th, as I am driving down the California highway my mom calls me again. “I need to tell you something, but I don’t want to tell you while you are driving.” Shit. Shit. Shit. I knew. I knew somewhere in the back of my brain what this conversation was going to be. I had just lost my dad three years prior, I knew how these conversations started. “Mom, just say it.” There was silence. It was that type of silence that happens when you just want to wait a little bit longer because you know once it leaves your mouth it means it is real. It means that life as you know it is going to change. “Baby they are saying I have cancer. They think it’s breast cancer, and it’s in my bones.” I know I said I was a nurse, but what I left out was that I was an oncology nurse. Oncology equals a cancer nurse. My mom did not realize it at the time, but I knew that if they thought it was breast cancer, and it was already in her bones, my mom had stage four breast cancer. Incurable cancer. I pulled the car over, I got out, told my mom I needed to call her right back, and I screamed. I was filled with a rage that I still to this day can not describe. And then I cried. I sobbed. I wept. I was the crazy person on the side of the road for a good five minutes. Then I got back in the car, booked a plane ticket to Florida, and drove as fast as I could all the way to LAX to get on a plane to my mom.
My mom was given a 25% chance of making it a year and a half. We were told that she had probably had cancer for about five years before her diagnosis. That meant my mom probably had cancer even before my dad got sick. My moms primary tumor was found on her top left rib. It would have never been detected by a mammogram. It had been mistaken as scar tissue from a previous broken rib for years. When she left the hospital her diagnosis was stage 4 breast cancer. She had metastases to her shoulder, spine, skull, and bone marrow.
My mom fought hard. She had four kids, 9 grandchildren(at the time), and was newly remarried. She had to have blood transfusions one to two times a month. She did radiation. She started with chemo pills and took those until she would progress and have to move on to a new one. Once all her options with the chemo pills ran out she went to IV chemo. She lost all of her hair. She never complained. Anytime she got bad news she would tell us how thankful she was for her doctors, and that there were other options for medicine. She would be thankful for how little side effects she experienced. In the face of this huge diagnosis she found thankfulness. She was my hero.
When I became pregnant with my son she would always tell her doctor that he had to keep her going so she could see him. I needed him to keep her going much longer than that. There is something about becoming a mom that makes you need your mom even more. My mom made it to my sons birth, and she made it seven months after that, almost three years after her diagnosis. I had been a mom for seven months when I had to say goodbye to my mom, my best friend. I’m sure I will write more about grieving while being a new parent in the future, but for now I will say it was the hardest time of my life.
So for the month of October, and every other month, we wear pink in memory of my Mom, my kids Nana. Encourage the women in your life to see a doctor if that little voice in their head is telling them something is off. Have your mammograms/ultrasounds. Do your self exams. Early detection is so important.
To anyone in the fight right now. You are brave, you are strong, you are stronger than cancer.
For more information or support regarding breast cancer here are some helpful links:
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