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The Lessons Cancer Has Taught My Family

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Loss is a funny thing … it has no time limits and there isn’t anything that can prepare you for it. Recently, I lost my sweet, dear aunt to pancreatic cancer. She battled for five long years and well, she fought hard. She never complained and never told a soul how hard things got or how sick she was. She had so much light and joy in her for as long as she could display it. It wasn’t until the last three months that I saw the life fade from my aunt. She rapidly lost all of her body mass being left to a mere skeleton, she stopped eating, laughing, talking and smiling. All she would do is hold your hand. But it wasn’t an ordinary hand holding, it was a lingering, soul connecting hand hold like she was trying to convey her thoughts to us from a simple hand squeeze.

At our last family gathering, she spent all her time holding her nieces’ hands, giving us her last moments and thoughts and pieces of love and to make sure that we were OK with her preparing to leave this earth. And that made me feel at peace with knowing that she was transitioning. I knew from looking at her that her time was coming to an end. Somehow with cancer you just know it is almost over. You get this gut-wrenching feeling and it’s like peace but fear at the same time. But for some reason I wanted my aunt to just let go, I wanted her to go be with my grandmother who also died of cancer 35 years earlier. I wanted the pain to end.

When I got the call that my aunt passed, I felt relief. But then what happened next gave my despair and turmoil in my spirit. I began talking to my mother about my aunt’s life and all that she taught us and about this piece and I quickly learned that cancer had not only affected her and my grandmother. I learned that cancer had taken out most of mother’s aunts and uncles and I will say, this disturbed me on many levels. I didn’t even know where to begin to ask questions. My mind began to spin and I wanted to know so much. Before I could even form my lips to ask the first question mother began to speak. She told me during her childhood and early adulthood, access to medical care was very difficult for poor African Americans, especially those in rural areas and in the inner city. Mother grew up in D.C. and much of her family grew up rural Virginia. If they were lucky they made it John’s Hopkins or to the public hospitals in D.C. but it was often when their disease had reached the advance stages. As she said so eloquently “ back in those days, black folk didn’t go to the doctor unless it was absolutely necessary. And we didn’t have many doctors who were willing to treat us. That’s why I lost so many of my family members. But I am glad now to have screenings and good health care. I will fight when I can to make this awful disease go away.” I couldn’t say anything. In all my life I had only known two other people in my family who had been afflicted with cancer, not six! Cancer has literally torn our family to shreds! It isn’t fair.

My aunt was a special case. She also had multiple sclerosis (MS) and to this moment, I will always say that saved her life. Had she not had that
MS flare, they would not have found her pancreatic cancer at stage 1. The doctors worked so diligently to provide top shelf treatment to her and work to make her as comfortable as possible. However, her journey was not easy. She endured multiple infections which led to sometimes several month long or more hospital stays, her body got so weak she fell down the stairs and we had to set up in home care for her, she lost her ability to control her bowels, and then eventually she could not walk or stand and then towards the end, she could not swallow. But with each hospital stay and each hiccup, she never complained. She always smiled and wanted us children, grandchildren and nieces to live our lives and be happy and not worry about her. But how do you not worry about your loved one who has cancer? I watched my mother worry constantly, which made me worry because she made so many trips to see her, or when I spoke to her she sounded so forlorn because her sister was in the hospital and there wasn’t anything she could do. And that made me sad because I knew my mother was so overwhelmed having a chronically ill husband to take care of and a sister who was fighting for her life.

But during my aunt’s battle I learned many things. The biggest lesson is that cancer is a family disease and it affected us all. We all played a part in my aunt’s treatment and well-being. The second lesson I learned was that she needed us to continue our lives as we normally would. While her diagnosis and battle were life altering, she needed us to continue our normal lives as much as possible. She craved the normalcy, the laughter and the love we all brought to the family each day. She needed the family events and the milestones and life moments to know that we were still “living our lives” as she so eloquently put things. She wanted us to enjoy things despite her condition. Lastly, I learned you have to fight at every moment and have an advocate. My aunt was very fortunate to have several advocates for her, for towards the end of her life she grew very weary and didn’t have the strength to do much for herself. But her sisters and nieces and daughter were able to step in and be her voice and ensure she continued to receive the best care. She needed that. And I firmly believed this is why she was able to fight as long as she did.

So you see, even though cancer is awful, and can cause the utmost grief in families, it can also present opportunities for love and growth in families. While our hearts feel sorrow for our loss, we also feel joy because of the things we learned and the time we got to spend with our loved one. We also know that now she is no longer hurting from the effects of this awful disease. And that is priceless.

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: December 2, 2021
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