I Learned About Life, Love and Peace After Losing My Mom to Cancer

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As March 1996 came to a close, the roller-coaster that had become my life as a young teenage boy took an inevitable turn for the worst. Though expected, my siblings and I weren’t ready  — we found ourselves entering uncharted waters with a capsized ship, not knowing how to carry on without her.

It was terrifying to think about how life might be moving forward, knowing she wouldn’t be around . Mom’s five-year bout with cancer had come to a close.

She lost, but not really.

Her battle taught me a lot about life, love and the importance of fighting for things. More than that though, through the process of having to stare her own death in the eye, I think she was able to dig into her soul and find a sense of peace in the way her story was playing out  —  even though it was far from a fairy tale ending.

I can’t imagine this peacemaking within one’s self coming easily, and I’m sure there were times when she felt helpless and broken, especially during the early years, as rivers of tears flooded our house over time. However, as the cancer progressed in her final years, she couldn’t help realizing and teaching us the only true guarantee any of us have is this very moment  – right here and right now.

None of us is promised anything past this very instant, and in the grand scheme of things, none of us will be around for very long.

Over the course of those five years, she fought through nearly a dozen surgeries, as well as round after round of chemotherapy that was interspersed with radiation treatment. Plus, towards the end, the doctors pulled out their Hail Mary pass in attempting an experimental laser surgery. It was a last ditch effort we were told not to be overly optimistic about.

These were all reminders everything she had could be taken away at an instant, forever. She didn’t have control over the treatment, the way she felt, the way she looked, nor her appetite. The one thing she had control over was her attitude, and the way she responded to and embraced every situation.

So, she started running  —  a lot. The title picture of this article is of my mother standing next to a plaque that reads, “This trail is dedicated to the courage of Marcia Hill.”

The mayor of Atlanta, along with friends and family, were there to unveil her dedicated piece. It was such a beautiful day, and  so representative of who she was.

I guess when you can start to see the end is or at least could be near, you start to realize there is an actual finite number of breaths that each of us will take  —  days we’ll wake up, meals we’ll eat, vacations we’ll enjoy, birthdays to celebrate, friends to make, and the list goes on.

She constantly reminded me and our entire family to be grateful for each moment, to treasure and cherish them, and to be the keeper of my own happiness. Through viscerally experiencing the tenuous and often uncontrollable nature of life, she developed the ability to let go of the things over which she had no control ;  she had to, otherwise she would have missed out on her time left with us.

It’s true, cancer attacked her body and put her through living hell, but it couldn’t rob her of happiness or her ability to enjoy whatever remaining time she had with us. She wouldn’t have ever pictured her life playing out the way it did  —  leaving behind a husband and four kids. She would have given anything in the world in exchange for a different set of circumstances. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Sure, she could complain about it and feel sorry for herself, which is how some of us handle not getting what we want in life, but instead, she chose to fight, embrace the time she had left, and use her circumstances to make a difference in the world around her .

That’s how she will always be remembered.

People are shocked at how upbeat and positive I always am. Give me an empty glass and I’ll find a way to make it half full . At times, I think it annoys my girlfriend. That’s the honest to God truth, but that hasn’t always been the case, and it’s still not always the case .

 I’m very human, very often.

I do feel like, in a strange way, I kind of fell into this way of thinking. Whether you realize it or not, having to deal with the reality of watching the most important person in your life die, over an extended period of time  —  it shapes you.

After about a year of wondering if your mom will be around for your birthday, Christmas or the following summer, you start to realize worrying not only doesn’t fix the problem, but it actually exacerbates it and keeps you from being happy in the present.

I am pretty positive and upbeat these days, but when I was 9, 10 or 11, I was petrified , often scared stiff at what the future might hold. After a hundred or so hospital visits and just as many “family meetings” over the same amount of time, you become tired of feeling a certain way, and it was the impact of mom’s outlook on life that encouraged me along.

Plus, when someone you love is staring death in the eyes, you can’t help but develop a greater sense of appreciation for your life and the blessings throughout. One of my favorite Oprah quotes cuts right to the core of this idea:

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

I’ve experienced low points over the last couple of years  — stressed over money for bills, disagreements with girlfriends, disputes with business partners, etc., and at times, I’d have done anything to fix things.

At times I’ve wanted to call it quits on my dreams, but whenever that voice sneaks into my head, I can’t help but remind myself there are just too many reasons to keep fighting.

The only way I’ve been able to maintain such a sense of resilience is because I was trained for five years straight as an early teen.

Daily, I had to decide how I’d respond to the circumstances of my life. After a while, I think you start to realize it takes a lot less energy, is a lot less stressful, and you’re overall a better person when you’re able to maintain a positive outlook on whatever circumstances you find yourself.

However, just because life goes wrong sometimes or even often, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be upset or attempt to bypass our feelings. In fact, we absolutely need to feel the pain, hurt and vulnerability of what it means to be a human being who can be hurt in so many ways at any given time. If we don’t tend to this part of our humanity, I think over time, we become less human and less able to empathize with those around us. We close ourselves off from a lot of what it means to be human and alive.

Instead, we must learn to appropriately process, then move past things, while opening ourselves up to whatever lesson is there to be learned along the way.

Every situation in life presents an opportunity to make a choice in regards to how we’ll manage ourselves.

Sadly, most of us never recognize this, and struggle with this very idea our entire lives. Instead of choosing a response, we tell ourselves “this” happened so “this” is how I’m supposed to respond. We evolved this way as a species, in order to protect ourselves from the dangers our predecessors faced thousands of years ago. That instinctual response was incredibly useful in protecting the tribe from predators, however now, as highly evolved social creatures, this reaction gets in the way of our ability to make rational decisions. That in turn affects our relationships, and subsequently, our own happiness.

Before reacting instinctively and in ways we’re all familiar with, it’s important to step back and say to ourselves, “Given the situation , what’s within my control?” If you get honest with yourself, you’ll see the only reliable answer to this question is your ability and choice to respond however you’d like.

This is what my mother was so brilliant at doing, and what inspired thousands in our community.

As you can probably imagine, my mom taught me a lot about life, and actually living  —  something so many of us just take for granted. I wouldn’t in a million years have ever wanted her to die, but if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I would.

My fingers tremble writing this because that’s not something I’m supposed to say. I guess it’s just hard for me to look back at my life and try to imagine what it would have been like if she hadn’t have gotten sick and how my childhood could have looked otherwise. I can’t imagine who I might have become, but I know I wouldn’t have been as emotionally as strong and resilient. Nor would I be here, writing this, as it took going through a lot of pain and tears to discover some beautiful truths about life and myself.

Honestly, these are ways of being and living  I think we can all benefit from by applying them to our lives. So, if you take anything from this article, I hope it’s these three things:

1. Every day and in every instant, we have choices.

You can choose to let go of the things outside of your control or you can choose to let them eat you up inside.

You can choose to negatively react to circumstances, or you can choose to respond to such circumstances with a sense of emotional courage. It’s your choice, but one way leads to a much happier and more fulfilling life.

Choose courage whenever possible.

2. Live by the words the late, great Jim Valvano shared in his heroic ESPY’s speech.

“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

3. You’re alive this very second  — what a miracle.

No matter how bad things seem to get at times, remind yourself there’s always something to be grateful for. There are so many reasons to smile, so don’t let too many of them pass you by.

Damn , that was hard to write. Really hard. 

I’m glad I did though, and I hope you’re able to apply some of these things to your own life, whether you’re in the midst of a disheartening chapter of life, or not. Don’t wait any longer to start living a life that is real, authentic and most important of all, truly alive.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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5 Things I Learned About Suicide Rates in Cancer Patients

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Mohamed Rahouma, MD, is a post-doctoral cardiothoracic research fellow and surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital. He and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Port co-authored the study, “Among All Cancers, Lung Cancer Appears to Put Patients at Greatest Suicide Risk.”

In September 2016, we sought to investigate the role stressful events had after someone received a cancer diagnosis, and we choose suicide as the dismal outcome. We went through a large American database called SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) that included detailed information about cancer patients for over four decades (1973-2013).

We learned the following from our work:

Patients with cancer are really at risk.

Among 3,640,229 patients in the database, we looked at suicide deaths for lung, prostate, breast and colorectal cancers individually, as those are the most common four cancer types in the U.S. Over the four decades, there were 6,661 suicides among cancer patients. 

We found any kind of cancer patient was 60 percent higher than the general U.S. population to die by suicide.

Which type of cancer put the patient at the highest risk?

When we divided the data by cancer types, dramatic differences existed in suicide rates. We discovered suicide rates were 40 percent higher than average among colorectal cancer patients, and 20 percent higher among those diagnosed with breast cancer or prostate cancer.

The highest risk was noted to be among lung cancer patients — 420 percent higher.

Why does lung cancer have a higher suicide rate?

It is well-known lung cancer is an aggressive disease with a poor overall and disease-free survival rate, unless it is discovered at an early stage to prompt a cure with proper treatment.

Which lung cancer patients are at a higher suicide risk?

Asians have a more than 13-fold risk of suicide, and men a nearly 9-fold increase in suicide. Other factors that increased suicide risk were being older, being widowed, refusing surgical treatment and having a difficult-to-treat (metastatic) type of lung cancer.

Good news and final advice.

We noted over the 40-year study period, suicide rates decreased, most notably for lung cancer when compared to the other three most common cancers. This may be attributed to better screening and discovery of cancer at an early stage — hence, higher cure rate and better hope.

Patients may feel anxiety, depression or hopelessness after hearing stories from their family members or friends who knew someone with the disease, so doctors need to reassure their patients every case is unique and there are good treatments for early-stage patients.

In our practice in the clinics, we see patients with their families and friends seem less stressed than those who come alone. Loneliness in itself is a big killer, so try to incorporate yourself among your loved ones and avoid isolation.

Your health and emotional well-being are the most important thing in the world, so try to share any suicidal thoughts with your physician.

Live today brilliantly because tomorrow is not promised.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo by cirano83

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Diagnosed With Head and Neck Cancer While Pregnant, Sarah Anderson Now Inspires Thousands on Facebook

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Editor’s note: This post contains graphic post-operative photos.

When you first look at photos of 26-year-old Sarah Anderson, you immediately notice her gorgeous smile, and then you get a sense of her confidence and positive spirit. You would never guess that just seven years ago, the Chicago resident was diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

In December 2009, when she was 18 years old, and six months pregnant, Anderson started experiencing what she thought was a toothache that wouldn’t go away. After going to the doctor, she was told she had stage 4 invasive squamous cell carcinoma of the lower right jaw and neck.

Sarah Anderson 1

Doctors immediately had to induce Anderson for an early birth, and just days later, she started her first of many surgeries.

“My first surgery, which was 23 and a half hours long, was the most major one,” Anderson told The Mighty. “In this surgery, everything was done all at once.”

By all at once, Anderson means the cancer was removed from her face and neck, the floor of her mouth, lower teeth on the right side of her mouth, lower jaw bone and back of her tongue. She also had seven lymph nodes removed from her neck to be tested for cancer.

Sarah Anderson 2

Sarah Anderson 3

Sarah Anderson cancer removal

Two of those lymph nodes came back positive, which resulted in her having to undergo chemo and radiation therapy. She also had reconstructive surgery done. To recreate her face, doctors broke the fibula bone in her leg and used her bone, skin, tissue and veins for the procedure.

“My leg is now a part of my face,” Anderson explained.

Sarah Anderson leg surgery scar

And that was just the first surgery. Six other surgeries followed after that, including replacement of the port in the life side of her chest and insertion of a feeding tube.

Sarah Anderson post surgery

Sarah Anderson after surgery holding baby

It was in surgery number four that all of the teeth that were left, as well as a screw that had been implanted in her chin, were removed. She then had six upper dental implants placed in her mouth, and after six months of healing, she finally saw the results.

Sarah Anderson teeth removal 2

Sarah Anderson teeth removal 1

Those remarkable results can be seen and heard every Friday at 6 p.m. on her Facebook page. That’s where Sarah “CancerSurvivor” Anderson goes live on video to talk about her journey, give messages of hope and inspire thousands of listeners to beat cancer – or whatever they are going through.

Sarah Anderson selfie

Going through my journey, I didn’t have the pleasure of speaking or hearing from a person who had similar symptoms or a diagnosis as me,” she said. “I wanted to be able to give someone else what I didn’t have while going through my own diagnosis. I wanted to create a platform for those who needed some type of encouragement and strength to glean from.”

Sarah Anderson beauty shot

Today, when she’s not spending time with her now 7-year-old daughter, singing, cooking, going to church or volunteering at the hospital that treated her as a patient, she’s enjoying being cancer-free.

Yes, Anderson is officially cancer-free, and that is what inspires her to continue spreading her message of hope as a motivational speaker. She also takes pride in being an advocate for anyone going through difficult situations like cancer and depression.

Her current motto in life is: “Keep the faith to survive, no matter what.”

Sarah Anderson keep the faith

Catch Anderson live on Facebook every Friday at 6 p.m.

For more stories like this, like Cancer on The Mighty on Facebook.

All photos courtesy of Sarah Anderson

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Country Singer Jo Dee Messina Announces She Has Cancer

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Jo Dee Messina, who dominated the country charts in the late 90s with songs like “I’m Alright” and “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” and was the first female country artist to top the charts with three No. 1 songs from one album, announced Wednesday that she has cancer.

The 47-year-old did not reveal the type of cancer, but her team did share an emotional and heartfelt message to her fans, which began, “Over the years, Jo Dee has built a close relationship with her fans, so those of us at Team JDM wanted to be the first to let you know that she was recently diagnosed with cancer.”

You can read the entire statement below:

Producer Seth Mosely, who recently worked with Messina and Mia Fieldes to write the song “Here,” said watching Jo Dee record the song after she was told the diagnosis was “One of the most powerful moments I’ve had in my entire studio career.”

Messina’s fans reacted to the news on Twitter with an outpouring of support:

Messina plans to play four more concerts, the last being October 7, in Harrington, Delaware, before postponing the rest of her tour. She will begin cancer treatment this fall.

Photo from Jo Dee Messina Facebook page

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Week After Losing Wife to Cancer, Husband Finds This Photo of Her in Wedding Dress

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Sometimes life gives you special moments that take your breath away, like the first time you’re reunited with your high school love or when you find a photo of your wife in a wedding dress you never got to see her in. Both of these moments happened to John Polo, a 33-year-old widower from Illinois whose wife passed away from proximal-type epithelioid sarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer.

After dating in high school and then going their separate ways, Polo was reunited with Michelle eight years later. He proposed a year into their relationship, but a year later they got the devastating news: Michelle had proximal-type epithelioid sarcoma — a cancer so rare her specialist said only one person in the world gets it per year.

John and Michelle

Four days after her diagnosis, they rushed to the courthouse and were married in July 2013. Five days later, they removed Michelle’s kidney. She underwent chemo and radiation and appeared clear for a while, but then the cancer came back, and by 2016 it had spread to her liver, ovary, tailbone and lung. At this point, it was terminal.

“It was a cancer battle from hell,” Polo tells The Mighty.

After having the tumor in her lung and ovary removed, and a failed attempt at an immune therapy clinical trial, the two decided to plan a real wedding. The date was set for February 6, 2016, but Michelle passed away on January 22, 2016.

A week after Michelle passed away, Polo found the picture of his wife on her phone, but he didn’t share it on Facebook until August 31 of this year. He was waiting until the time seemed right to share it with the world.

Michelle wedding dress

The post reads, “She loved that dress so much. While at hospice, she would talk to people about how great the wedding was going to be. She wasn’t coherent enough to realize that she wasn’t going to make it to there. Michelle died without me ever seeing her in that dream dress.”

But Polo did eventually see Michelle in that dream dress, and so did the world. In just a few days the post has gone viral and has garnered thousands of heartwarming comments.

Polo is channeling that support through his personal blog, Better Not Bitter Widower, which he started a month after Michelle passed away, and has sparked a deep passion for writing and speaking about love, loss, grief and healing.

John and Michelle 2

His first book, “Widowed. Rants, Raves and Randoms,” comes out in about two weeks, and he’s even started speaking and hosting workshops on grief to help others.

“I want to change the way society looks at grief. I want to help others find healing. I want to make something good come out of an unspeakable tragedy.”

Polo’s life has been filled with memorable moments, both good and bad, and these moments have given him a new purpose in life as an author, blogger, speaker and life coach.

Black and white John and Michelle

“I know there will be times in which you don’t think you can make it through a profound loss, but I am proof that you can. Not only can you make it through, but in time, you can actually learn to live again.”

Follow Polo’s Better Not Bitter Widower journey on Facebook

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Remembering My Father (My Superman) a Year After Losing Him to Cancer

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It has been a year since I made the trip back to Maine upon learning the extent of your prognosis.

Just three weeks prior, I sat across the table from you at one of my favorite restaurants in town, celebrating my 33rd birthday. We were amongst family.

You were visibly frail then — more so than I’d remembered you being in quite some time. Not since your last bout with cancer, perhaps? One of the many battles you defeated mightily.

I suppose I had become accustomed to seeing you overcome so much. I simply expected that this time would be no different. That you were ill, and would recover, like you always had before.

You were Superman to me, even beyond my childhood years.

I held it together driving to visit you in the hospital. Riding up the elevator to your floor, I heard your voice trailing through the hallway as I approached your door.

I peeked in, only to immediately retreat from view, biting my lower lip, trying desperately to hold back tears and failing miserably. How had things deteriorated so quickly in just a few weeks time? I held my breath upon entering your room, a smile plastered on my face amidst the pain.

“Hi baby!” You rejoiced. Your arms outstretched, hair combed meticulously and beautiful big green eyes magnified by your sunken cheeks.

We sat together embracing.

I had so much I wanted to tell you, but all I could muster was, “I love you so much,” echoing through our tears.

“I know you do, baby.”

“I love you, too. I know I wasn’t a perfect dad.” Your voice cracked as you attempted to continue.

“You were the best dad,” I stammered reassuringly.

You talked about how challenging getting through your dialysis had been lately. How you felt pressured by some within your hospital team to make a decision on whether to continue or not with treatment.

You were adamant you wanted to try one more time. To see if you could handle it so you could hang on a little longer.

A doctor and social worker entered the room. They began running through your options once again. They reinforced what we all knew already: you were terminal and the dialysis was only prolonging your pain. The inevitable.

They explained what stopping dialysis would entail. You would be able to go home and spend the time you had left with family. Your pain would be managed. They said you would simply become more tired until you’d eventually go peacefully in your sleep.

You nodded silently in agreement.

“Doesn’t that sound like a good plan?” your doctor asked.

“Well, I guess so,” you responded, uncertainty permeating your voice.

Your brain was foggy from the medication and from the cancer infiltrating your body.

“Good!” he answered. “We’ll start getting the paperwork in motion.”

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. I looked over and met your gaze. “Is that what you want to do?”

“Well, I really wanted to try the dialysis one more time.”

Your doctor once again explained what this would mean for you, and expressed it was time to make a clear decision without wavering.

“It’s not an easy decision to make,” I countered. Anger dripped from every syllable.

“I understand,” he said softly, once again shifting his attention back to you. “We will plan to have your dialysis tomorrow morning, as scheduled, and then go from there.”

I knew he was right. And they were, in fact, pushing you towards a decision that would ease your suffering. But by God, it was your decision to make. You had earned the right to be in charge of your own fate at this point.

A few moments of silence lingered following their exit. I sat shaking a bit, trying to compose my anger, sadness and heartbreak. I looked up to find you staring back at me, a calm smile upon your face.

“That right there,” you remarked. “You stepping in when I needed you to, being strong. You reminded me so much of your mom.”

The following day mom texted to let us know you were coming home. You withstood your final dialysis treatment until your body and mind said, “No more.”

You said “stop” on your terms, and spent your final days teaching us all what it truly means to be brave.

You beat cancer twice, and your life — well, it was a fight in so many ways. But you were Superman until the end, showing an inordinate amount of courage in letting go.

Today, on my way back from running errands, my mind wandered back to these memories.

It is so often the case that everything and nothing reminds me of you. I’m grateful for these reminders, for the memories and for the love.

You were not a perfect person… a perfect dad. But your love is what set you apart. Because of you, I will carry on this legacy with my own children.

 

Ellie Fadden father gravestone

Thank you, my Superman.

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Thinkstock photo by Choreograph

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