Stomach Cancer

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    Natalie Rodriguez

    Losing a Father Figure When Your Biological Father Abused You

    I once read a quote where it said that life is painful but extraordinary as well. I have always liked that quote; in fact, it felt ritual to post each year on social media. The last time I ever expected to write the following would be a few years from now. Well, many years to be exact. Over the weekend, my stepfather passed away. He lost his five-plus month battle with stage four stomach cancer. He was 60 years old, a man who still had a life to live. My mother advised me over the phone that early morning–the call to break the news to me–that Al was sound asleep. He was in no pain. It was what most of us, including my mother, wanted. None of us wanted Al to be in pain, especially when we were informed just two months earlier that the doctors were unable to stop ongoing bleeding with the growing tumor in his stomach. Al had two choices. He could proceed with chemo and return to the hospital every few weeks for a blood transfusion due to the stomach tumor bleeding. The other was to stop treatment completely and be placed in hospice. Al made the brave decision to return home and be with his family. He lived with my mother and his two daughters (or my stepsisters). At the time, like many of Al’s loved ones, I was enraged and confused too. For a while, I thought there were other treatments or a way for the doctors to surgically shrink the tumor in order to perform a surgical removal. I mean, they had to. Al was always a fighter. But the irony with cancer is we do not get chose when it comes to recovery. That was the reality when it came to Al’s deteriorating health. Al always echoed his concern of being at the hospital, while away from family, and something bad happened. Including death. He wanted to be home with people he loved. It clicked over time — that was his worse fear, to be away from the love of his life (my mother) and his baby girl (Lindsay). The reality was difficult to accept, especially when I struggled to drive over to see Al, my mother, and my step-sisters. When my mother sent out a group text of Al’s treatment coming to an end and for him to go into hospice, I immediately called out of work and saw them. The drive there was nerve-racking and I felt sick to my stomach, petrified if I had to pull over to throw up or be consumed by anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, neither had occurred. To be honest what kept me focused on getting to the house was repeating, “Go there for Al. Go there for Al.” So, I did. As soon as I arrived, a truck was already parked in the driveway of their home. It was hospice delivering equipment. The rest was sort of a haze. All I remember was my mother walking the aide outside and greeting me. Then, we walked into the house together. She told me something around the lines of not being scared when I saw Al. In the living room, Al was sitting in his favorite LaZ-Boy chair. So far, he appeared to be “himself.” He was in the middle of filing his taxes. He was talking and answering phone calls, as well as surfing the web. Why? It was actually he who wanted to get a jumpstart on his taxes from the year before. However, it felt like the elephant in the room for a bit while Lindsay and my mother helped Al with his paperwork. I decided to stay a few extra hours when my mother informed me that hospice would be stopping by in a bit. At the time, Evelyn was at work. That was a bigger punch in the gut and, I am certain, it was the same for my mother, Lindsay, and my other stepsister, Evelyn. I forgot names. I forgot what time hospice stopped by. But it was clear when the coordinator began asking Al and our questions about his final wishes. While I sat on the couch, next to Lindsay and across from Al, we listened as he declined for anyone to perform CPR for him if that time ever came. My mother, Lindsay, and I were silent until, Al broke the ice and flat out asked us, “Right, girls?” We agreed. I stayed as late as I could. On my way home, at some point, I bawled my eyes out. Little did I know, at the time, Al was accepting his new reality or fate–something that my therapist guided me through in the weeks to follow. At the time, I was unaware of my own denial. That was something I learned of my own denial in the weeks to come, regardless of how busy life got. Sure, my work schedule changed and film and book projects kept me busier than usual but, the longer I was away from Al and the house, I was consumed with guilt. I saw Al once more after the day when Hospice dropped off equipment and the coordinator visited. But each week, I dreaded the arrival of another weekend. The truth was simple: I was terrified to see Al and accept the reality of him never getting better. In-between the two to three weeks of not seeing him, my mother, or my stepsisters, I felt like a bigger asshole. Whenever my mother and I spoke on the phone, she was emotional and divulged that Al was not going to live much longer. I retorted that it was possible for him to get better, something that a few of us strongly felt for weeks. But my mother expressed her truth about Al’s state of eating fewer meals and sleeping more, especially in his final week. Ultimately, my therapist called me out on my denial the week of seeing Al for the last time. She informed me that the longer someone avoids something, the pain will only go up. During this session, I wanted to scream and argue against her but sadly, it slowly began to click. The longer I went without seeing Al, the more anxious and stressed out I felt. The giveaway was experiencing shoulder pain and tension just days before seeing my stepdad. I felt disappointed in myself. My therapist was right but at the time, I was scared. I was not ready to accept. Later that week, I made the trip down to the house. For the first time, I met two of Al’s caregivers. He was happy to see him and I was too. Immediately, I went over to Al and gave him a hug. I apologized and told him something like, “Sorry, I didn’t come sooner.” It was all I thought of at that moment. But something I always admired of Al, once someone was there — it’s all that mattered. Fortunately, my final memories of Al were beautiful and positive. For the next few hours that day, I ran some errands with my mom, watched movies, and overheard banter and chit-chat between everyone in the household. Al enjoyed snacking on sweets and sugar. He also picked up a newish habit and was smoking a vape with 5% tobacco. Some were not too pleased with his recent intake of just sweets and, then, tobacco. But Al always smiled, as he did, and said he just simply had a sweet tooth. Before leaving the house, I asked Al what type of candy he wanted the next time I saw him. It was between Boston Baked Beans and Australian Licorice. Even at his frailest, his eyes lit up and he requested Boston Baked Beans. I told him how about both. He smiled. We embraced twice. I was a bit terrified when I felt how brittle and thinner he was. But at that moment, I had to remind myself that cancer altered his physical appearance but never his attitude. In those moments, I was relieved to be there with Al, my mother, my stepsisters, and the caregivers. It was what I needed, and I know Al did too, in order to heal. It was all an eye-opener and proof — Al was living his life to the fullest with no regrets. Al died six days later after my visit. It was terrible. Two nights before his passing, I struggled to sleep. I stayed up passed midnight back-to-back, trying to watch TV and binge-eating sweets. I was super nervous and overall, worried. I thought to myself that Al could not die. He had people to be there for. He needed to be there for Lindsay’s graduation or Evelyn’s wedding. It was very difficult for me to not go down old habits and wonder why the good people appear to go first. It was never a secret, especially when I publicly shared my childhood to young adulthood, as well as the aftermath of Jeff’s passing just years ago, in projects: I wanted people such as my abusers to switch places with Jeff or Al, aka my biological dad and older brother. I cut ties with them more than 10 years ago after confronting them about their abuse and when my biological dad relapsed from alcohol. For years, I suffered at the hands of their abuse, something that I never went into full detail with either Jeff or Al. In therapy, I learned that one’s past never defines their future, let alone are there pre-requisites when it comes to sharing your trauma and overall story. For me, I felt that time would sometime arrive where I felt ready to tell, both, Jeff and Al of the details. Often, I wonder if it was best for neither of my two father figures to know. **Sidenote – I am forever talking about this in therapy; it is something I continue to work on.*** On the morning of Al’s passing, I woke up with 6 am to seven missed calls from my mother. By the time she picked up the phone, I already knew her answer. She choked up. We both discussed how it was best for Al to go in his sleep, without any pain. He was at peace. Al once told us that he felt best when he was either falling asleep; it made him relaxed. Fortunately, I was able to cry for the first time on the phone with my mother. She choked up and agreed with me that the situation sucks. Cancer sucks. I decided to visit the house that day, along with my partner. So far, there have been many ups and downs before a funeral is set. Just taking it one day at a time like many loved ones of Al. The irony with one’s passing is not only learning more about others, and both their fortunate and unfortunate intensions, but of yourself. Al’s passing got me to open up more to my partner and vice versa with him. For the first time, sharing personal details of the past and worries about the future felt calm and not traumatizing. I would like to think a lot had to do with, both, Jeff and Al being present. I would like to think they were telling me that it was OK. I would be lying to myself if I said what was next. A lot continues to make me anxious and scared right now. First and foremost, I am dreading Al’s funeral because I do not want to see people I care about cry. I am also not ready to see Al or say goodbye to him. I am, more so, annoyed by the idea of running into toxic individuals at the services–people like my biological dad and older brother–and giving them peace of my mind. Let’s be honest, who does not have these wishes. But something I continue to tell myself, and probably will forever, is this is about Al. His passing is my time to reflect on the beautiful relationship I developed with him. It is about remembering him as the man who lived many lives and turned his life around. It is about the fortunate situations he experienced, including the five and a half years of being with my mother. Al was never a traveler, but he traveled with my mother to various cities and countries. This is about Al and the third chance of having a wonderful role model and father figure in life. That is something I am forever grateful for. I would like to think that both Jeff and Al are hanging out in Heaven. Hope will continue to move me forward.

    Learning to Advocate for Myself and Trust My Gut in Life With GERD

    When my dentist told me I had nine cavities, I was shocked. I had recently given birth to my son and, during my pregnancy, had skipped a six-month dental check-up and cleaning. But nine? That was a lot! To be honest, I had been having dental issues for the past 15 years. When I was a senior in high school, my dentist referred me to a periodontist, who put me on antibiotics for gum disease. I don’t remember getting a cavity until I was in college, but throughout my twenties, it was not unusual for a routine dental checkup to end with an appointment for a filling. Despite six-month dental cleanings, brushing twice a day, sometimes with prescription toothpaste, and flossing, by the age of 41, the top layer of my enamel had worn away. I always assumed that I just hadn’t done a good job brushing. I also, throughout my adult life, have had stomach issues — that I’ve pretty much ignored. In college, I told a friend who told me (I thought) to drink garlic tea (though, looking back, she probably suggested ginger), so I spent the rest of that semester microwaving mugs of water and chopping garlic cloves. While my stomach issues haven’t been constant, there have definitely been several times over the past few decades when I’ve woken up, stressed in the middle of the night, dry heaving. The thoughts: “Well, I guess I don’t have a stomach lining,” or “that’s probably an ulcer,” have accompanied many morning coffees. Being a hypochondriac (though never formally diagnosed), I, strangely enough, spent decades dealing with this. The thing about hypochondria is that, while it invokes a ton of debilitating fear, it also gives me a psychological “out.” When I assume something is wrong, I often say, “It’s OK. I am just a hypochondriac,” before burying my concerns deep into the pit of my stomach and going on about my life. The summer before the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook when I noticed that somebody I had grown up with, somebody younger than me, had died of stomach cancer. How could this happen? I thought. She was so young. As an obsessive Googler, I Googled “stomach cancer” — and as so often happens when I Google diseases, I didn’t like what I found. One cause of stomach cancer: chronic stomach irritation. So, I thought, chronic stomach irritation isn’t just uncomfortable. It also kills you. The next time this irritation assaulted me, instead of ignoring it as I had for decades, I scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. I told him about my stomach irritation, and he replied, “Are you eating fatty or spicy foods? If so, stop. And take Nexium for two weeks.” So, instead of having a condition that predisposes me to stomach cancer, I thought, I simply need to eat better and take an over-the-counter medication? While such a response might comfort some, I still really thought I had a pre-cancerous condition, so the doctor’s response felt dismissive. Then, the pandemic happened, and I stopped paying attention to my body and needs for a year. A year or so later I saw a female nurse practitioner about this issue, thinking that perhaps a female would be more likely to listen to me than a male (I had read in the New York Times that female doctors were more likely to listen to their patients than male doctors – and much of my life experience confirmed this). When she gave me the same advice, to avoid spicy and fatty foods, I realized that, perhaps, this was par for the course. She did, however, order an endoscopy, which made me feel better. So, on a hot July day, I underwent the endoscopy — and waited a few days for the report. When I received it I was surprised to learn that I had a “clinical history” of GERD. What? I thought. Nobody told me this. Clinical “history” suggests that somebody previously diagnosed me with something and yet, I have no recollection of having been informed of this diagnosis. When I asked the nurse practitioner where this information came from, she noted that the doctor I had seen about my stomach issues, over a year ago, had noted it. I had a lot going on. We were on the precipice of a global pandemic. Maybe the doctor shared this diagnosis and I, thinking that GERD wasn’t a big deal, ignored it. I don’t know (though I suspect nobody told me). Five months after my endoscopy, I finished a round of medication that was only supposed to take three months – and the doctor (the nurse practitioner who I had been working with fell ill, so I started communicating directly with the doctor who performed the endoscopy) told me that if I get heartburn more than three times a week, I should go back to taking medication twice a day. Heartburn more than three times a week, I thought, that’s absurd. I don’t even know if I’ve ever really experienced heartburn.The more I started to pay attention to my body, however, the more I realized that, yes, I do experience it. I experience it quite frequently – definitely more than three times a week. So, what has struggling with an undiagnosed health condition for decades taught me? I need to believe that it has taught me something, because I don’t want these decades of stomach irritation – and the specter of stomach cancer — to be in vain. Well, for one, I am beginning to realize that the older I get, the more I have to advocate for myself. I am the only one who knows what is going on with my body, and if I am not in touch with and advocating for it, no one else will. This realization, of course, inspired a slew of racing questions. Why hadn’t I realized this when I was younger? Is my refusal to advocate for myself related to my people-pleasing mentality? And is all of this related to being raised female? Being raised female in my generation? Are younger generations better able to advocate for themselves? I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is yes, though I really can’t say for sure. What I can say, however, is that the older I get, the more the deadening weight of inaction wears on me, and the more I need to proactively prioritize those things that sustain me, because nobody else will. And if I simply exist in response to everybody else’s needs and demands, I will cease to exist. After 41 years, I know myself better than anybody else. As I journey through age, the one thing that I would like to share – with others, with myself, with my younger self, with my son — is to pay attention and trust your intuition. Throughout your life, you are going to hear a lot of noise. Let yourself hear it, but be able and willing to filter and evaluate – and know that, very often, you know what is best for you. Be willing to trust your gut.

    Community Voices


    Community Voices

    Taking Care of your Dying Parent as a Healthcare Worker

    There is nothing comparable to losing a parent. They are your foundation as an individual, your support and sense of home even if you are grown with your own family.

    There is no “good” way to lose a parent. As meaningful and compassionate friends and family try to be, it does not matter. They don’t understand. Just because I knew my dad was dying, did not make it any easier.

    I will not forget the day after Halloween when my mom called me to come over and talk. She would not say why, and I knew something was wrong. My strong father, who I have never seen cry, wept and apologized as he told me he had gastric cancer and it wasn’t good. He cried and apologized TO ME while HE was DYING of cancer. Only a parent’s love, right?

    Google. You try with every inch of your being not to google. I frantically looked up stages, second opinions, life expectancy. I can tell you gastric cancer is not good. It is one of the bad ones. Just don’t google.

    Once the initial shock wears off, you just cherish the time. My six-year-old daughter, who loved her Papa so much spent the most time over there. They played. They colored. I watched their interactions in a way I never have.

    I would go over my parents’ house at night and talk to my dad alone. I would ask him what he is thinking, what he was scared of and what I could do once he was gone to make him feel okay.

    Every word, every story, every inch of advice you hang onto and memorize. Because you don’t know when you will hear it again. It very well could be the last time.

    The first months were okay, chemo went okay, he was still himself. He still visited me. He still played with my children. He still got up and walked around, he was himself… until one day he didn’t.

    Highlighted advice here: Have the conversation.

    That can mean many different things depending on your relationship, or how you are as a person. But have the conversation. If there is something your questioning whether you want to say or ask. DO IT.

    While I am still not completely sure if there is a God, I do believe in things happening for a reason. And sometimes the timing of things makes it hard to

    question otherwise.

    My dad started getting sicker. The chemo did not work, and the cancer spread. He was told a few months at best. I knew I had to talk to have the conversation.

    There is no way to truly understand the depth of a parents love until you become one. Losing a parent makes you wonder if you were really the worst child.

    There was so many things I wish I appreciated more during my childhood. There are so many words and arguments that were so pointless and molecusle in comparison to life and relationship. And I felt guilty. And angry. And confused.

    I mustered up the courage in tears on my porch at my house with my husband and two children inside and I cried. I told him I felt guilty, I felt like he was not proud of me, I told him I was sad our relationship wasn’t better when I was a teenager. I told him I wish I knew what I know now after becoming a parent and growing up.

    I so badly wished I could have rewinded time to realize things that in hindsight are impossible to comprehend as a teenager.

    After becoming a parent, yourself, everything changes. My dad told me all the things I needed to hear. That was our conversation. Make sure you have it. Things happen so quickly, and you don’t want to miss the chance.

    He was sick but okay for about 8 months from diagnoses, then woke up one day and wasn’t.

    Throughout his journey I asked the questions my mom nor him knew to ask. I knew TPN was the best option, I knew the J tube was not. I asked about the pros and cons for chemo pre vs post-surgery. I asked for his lab results. I asked the nurses about pain management options, & medication options for the nausea. I felt his leg when he complained his calf hurt and told him it could be a PE. I read his discharge papers from the hospital and insisted on being a part of all of that. As a healthcare worker, you know. You learn.

    Having your parent dying and being in healthcare makes things a lot different. It was also a big reason that I am okay.

    When my dad finally called hospice, on his own, and said it was time for them to take over his care…I KNEW what that meant. My mom sort of knew. That is when I went into this robot healthcare worker like mode I did not come out of until after his death.

    My mom called me after hospice left and told me to manage pain, he will get liquid morphine every hour. That moment for me, is when it hit me. My dad was really dying.

    We know what Roxanol is. That means death. Along with that he could have Haldol every 4 hours (gut punch), and Lorazepam every 2 (and another). Jesus Christ they are snowing him, I thought. Did he really need all that?

    One day. In ONE DAY, my dad went from vacuuming the living room to in bed, finally slowly letting go.

    I walked into my parents’ house and felt the ominous silence that cut through my entire body like a knife. I walked upstairs to my mom sitting in the rocking chair in front of their bed, crutching, as my dad was asleep in bed.

    “Dad, its Brittany” I said. He looked at me. He looked at me with those eyes of someone that will soon leave this earth. They were glossy and looking at me, barely recognizing who I was.

    “Dad, its Brittany. I love you so much.”

    I love you too he said.

    And I leaned on his chest and cried. It was not him anymore. He was skinny, and in pain, and he was ready to stop fighting.

    From that moment on I stayed in that house.

    He peed himself. My strong, powerful, dad, who would never show emotion was covered in his own pee. My mom did not even know how to change the bed with someone in it.

    I knew this is where I step in. This is where I become what my mom and dad needed. I could step up and show appreciation and try to repay them in the slightest, by being the best parents I could have asked for.

    I took all his meds and put them in a single spot for my mom to easily access. I wrote the meds, dosage, times all on a piece of paper taped to their wall. I folded the sheet into a chuck so we could try and reposition as he started becoming restless.

    So, your telling me, it is okay to give my dad Morphine Haldol and Lorazepam every hour? It felt wrong. Working in acute care your working to get people better to send them home.

    “We are helping him move on to the next life, I know it’s different than what your used to.” The hospice nurse would say.

    From day one of diagnoses I dreaded one thing. Him actively dying. I knew the stages, the noises, what he would look like. I knew it all. I am still trying to figure out whether if being absolutely clueless would have been better.

    When he apologized to my mom and I, this is what he was referring to. As a Police Officer he was no stranger to death. He knew what we would witness. I knew too. But my wonderful, caring, mother and wife to my dad of almost 30 years did not. She had no clue.

    And again, this is where I was meant to be. This is how I would cope with his death. Knowing I was there, and I was helping.

    One of the fastest declines I have ever seen. My dad must have waited until he truly could not anymore, to lay in that bed, knowing what was next. I tried to comfort my mom the best I could. She cried in a way I have never heard and I won’t ever forget it.

    Her husband, her everything, was dying in front of her eyes and she had no idea what was going to happen next.

    I did.

    Now, he laid comfortably in the hospital bed in my sister’s old room. I repositioned him, played soothing music, put cool/warm clothes on him, removed blankets and then added some. I put the sheets he had vomited on in the wash. I held his hand and told him how much I loved him, how sorry I was that we had he had to go through this, and that we would be okay.

    In these moments I did these things and did not have emotion. I took care of him like I would a patient in a hospital. And this mindset might have been what made me so strong during these two days.

    I had been there for over a day without a shower. I missed my husband and kids. I needed to see them. I needed a mental break. I needed a nap. So, I came home late that night after dinner time. I laid down and fell asleep and woke up to a text from my mom:

    “He is making that gurgling noise, should I give him the drops?”.

    She sent that at 11:43pm. I got up and rushed over there. And he was there. Making the death gurgle, in his last hours of life. I told my mom this means he doesn’t have long. I don’t think he will make it another day. She didn’t know. She didn’t know even after I told her, that it really meant this was it. He was in his final hours, his final stage of dying. I laid on the couch outside of that room, and listened to the gurgling noises my dad made, and as sickening as it was to hear, it meant he was still alive.

    I wanted to be there. I whispered to him how badly I wanted to be here when he took his last breath. I sat in the rocking chair next to his bed for hours while my

    mom slept. He was barely ever alone. It was just me and my mom.

    I felt his skin cold and sweaty. I had to change the pillows and sheets due to them being soaked with sweat. He stopped urinating. His hands got colder and colder. I would periodically feel his pulse.

    And then, the breathing.

    If you have seen someone pass, the breathing is one of the worst things to watch. I sat there and counted: 40 seconds between breaths. Hours, and my dad would be gone. Still, in the moment “nurse mode” took over. I did everything I could. I really did. I made his as comfortable as I could. I comforted my mom as much as I could.

    I was the strong one.

    I ran home, just again to see my kids for a short minute and take a nap. I told my mom, in the room with my dad that I would be back once my Uncle Scott left, who was supposed to be there in less than an hour. My Uncle (his brother) was who he knew would be there for my mom, sister and I. He found comfort leaving, knowing my uncle would be there for us.

    My phone rang after being home for a half hour, I almost did not answer I was so mentally drained.

    “He died, get here now”.

    I am not mad, as I know they were in shock. But what a horrible way to hear it. I ran every red light and got there so fast to my uncles, grandmother and mom all crying. Phone calls being made. I just ran up to the room and hugged his cold body and cried. I stroked his head. I stared at him knowing it would be the last time.

    Now it’s been a week and a day. It does not feel real. I still imagine him walking through my door, or my phone will soon ring from him calling me to ask me when my daughter will be heading over.

    It is scary to not have my dad here. It is scary my six-year-old daughter has to learn about death, especially with whom someone she loved so much. It is sad to me that my dad will not see me graduate and become a nurse. He will not see my 11-month-old son grow up. It is an indescribable feeling knowing I won’t see him again. I won’t hug him. I won’t call him over stupid things. All the small things that you never think twice about, until you hear the news that your dad is dying of cancer.

    I am only 26. My dad only 61. I had a lot more growing up, and a lot more goals to obtain that I would have loved my father to see. I know he would be proud of me for taking care of him and my mom. He knows I will continue to do so.

    The death of my dad has brought a different outlook on a lot of things. It has brought my mom and I closer. It has brought some parts of my family closer and brought other negative things to light that should have been adressed a long time ago.

    The waves of the strongest sadness do creep over me. And I cry. I cry with the deepest sadness I have ever felt. Then it goes away. And I try to be happy. I try to be strong for everyone, including myself.

    In the meantime, I will continue to take it day by day.

    I love and miss you so much dad.

    June 25 1958- May 31 2020.

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    Community Voices

    First week of Adult Partial Program: Oi #Depression #Anxiety

    <p>First week of Adult Partial Program: Oi <a class="tm-topic-link mighty-topic" title="Depression" href="/topic/depression/" data-id="5b23ce7600553f33fe991123" data-name="Depression" aria-label="hashtag Depression">#Depression</a>  <a class="tm-topic-link mighty-topic" title="Anxiety" href="/topic/anxiety/" data-id="5b23ce5f00553f33fe98d1b4" data-name="Anxiety" aria-label="hashtag Anxiety">#Anxiety</a> </p>
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    Community Voices

    Being mindful of food choices

    I usually make uncomplicated food choices mostly because I have less stomach issues afterwards. Have had a few nausea free days so added hummus and a smidgein of olive oil to my spaghetti and veg and ended up with stomach pain and nausea again. Made me realise I did the right thing seeing the Dr who has arranged for me to have blood tests at home. I mostly manage my health without the Dr's intervention but after 2mths I've run out of ideas. She is testing me for everything but is also concerned as I haven't had tests for bowel cancer and have lost some weight which she is focusing on more than the dietary fat intolerance. Since she said that it's been stressing me a little as my father died from stomach cancer. I'm leaning more towards it being POTS symptoms presenting itself differently as my allergic reactions have gotten worse over the last 2yrs. I would just like to be able to have more food choices. Hopefully I will have an answer soon and just need to take care of myself in the meantime.

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    Joan Heron

    The Similarities in Losing My Son to Suicide and My Husband to Cancer

    I have had seven years to process how my son died by suicide. My heart was broken, and I was overwhelmed with guilt and self-recrimination. Two and a half years after my son died, my husband died from a very aggressive lymphoma. I could never have imagined this kind of loss in my lifetime. Gradually, I found myself comparing aspects of these two heartbreaking losses with an unexpected outcome. My son, Andrew, was 27 when he died. I thought he had a whole life ahead of him and now, suddenly, he was gone. My husband was in his early 70s when he passed away. While none of us imagined he would be gone so soon, he lived a long life, full of experiences he cared about. He was a devoted physician, a great father and a man who was loved by many during his lifetime. Knowing these things made it easier to grieve him. After my son took his own life, I went over and over his experiences, struggling to see where I had failed him, a reaction built into to the experience of a suicide loss. I knew he went into a serious depression, but I did not know that suicide was an option for him. When and where had I failed him? I could not yet grasp the bigger picture. I was so stranded, floundering in my guilt. When my husband become ill, the progression of his disease was eerily similar. He did not receive a diagnosis until the week he died. Apparently, it is common for a gastric cancer to be diagnosed most often when it is stage four and has metastasized to other parts of the body. During the months preceding his diagnosis, he only knew that something was wrong, saying “I am definitely not myself.” It was not until the two months prior to his death that he had observable symptoms. Before this, I noticed his behavior and his decision-making were unusual for him. He made some unpredictable decisions, extending himself beyond what was normal. He developed mood changes which he tried to calm with increased exercise. We could see that something was “off,” but we had no idea we were dealing with a very advanced cancer. My husband was diagnosed, began treatment and died all within the same week. It was this life experience, losing my husband to cancer so soon after losing my son to suicide, that I began to be able to think more about the role of disease leading to a loss by death. After witnessing the progression of cancer my husband had to go through, I began to think about the progression of events for my son in his disease. It occurred to me that there were many similarities. Both my son and my husband initially felt something was wrong that they could not rectify. A favored boss of Andrew’s suddenly shifted to a hostile stance that went unexplained to Andrew. Andrew was blindsided by this. What he couldn’t understand was why he was having so much trouble regaining his balance. Instead, he went into a serious depression which included hidden attacks upon himself. My husband had some subtle and quietly unremitting symptoms. None of them rose to the bar of qualifying for worry. A bit of indigestion. Some additional fatigue. A splotch on his hip that was diagnosed as shingles, even though a rash never materialized. Months later, he experienced fatigue that no rest seemed to resolve. He had been so busy we both thought it was due to a new schedule tied to professional commitments. One day, the fatigue began to overtake my husband. It was not unlike Andrew’s self-criticism that had overtaken him. These comparisons helped me to understand what disease can do. It can begin silently, barely causing anything other than a ripple effect. Over time, it can grow, sustaining itself by overcoming normal cells in the case of cancer, or ordinary thinking in the case of suicidal despair. The progression, without early intervention or understanding, has no opponents. It is free to move as fast as it can, quietly impacting all kinds of function, until one day, my husband could not get out of bed and my son could not hold one thought of himself that was not full of self- loathing and shame. Both my son and my husband were quietly debilitated by invasive disease. Neither of them could take any kind of action that might reverse or interfere with their symptoms. The depression and the cancer had a strong lead in each of their lives. Medical interventions, including a getting a diagnosis, unless achieved early on, were not going to be able to prevent their ending. This understanding helped me with my grieving for my son. I had shuttered myself into a dark room of self-recrimination. Now, I was able to go back over my son’s history without backing away due to my guilt. I could see more clearly where his struggles began in his life. I could see that my own history had contributed to failing moments in my caring for him. There had been opportunities for helping Andrew further if only I had understood that this is something a parent might want to do. I was raised with such emphasis upon self-reliance that I could not see these moments. I was unfamiliar with the notion of self-compassion. Believe me, these have been painful reflections. What I have learned is that I did not know then what or how to help Andrew. I ache over the suffering this caused for my son. I now understand that we were both in need of compassion. I now understand for him how his struggle became so acute. He would have loved to know that I regard what he perceived as “failures” as anything but failure. That he was doing the best he could. I know he was doing the best he could right up to the very end. I also understand that neither one of us deserved to struggle and suffer so much in our lives. Early on after Andrew died, I remember being in a room full of mothers who had lost children to suicide. We gathered as part of a program on International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. I was sitting near an “older” Mom, someone I saw as having more experience than me. She said “just keep talking to them. Just keep talking to them.” I took her comment to heart. It helped me to imagine the conversation I really wanted to have with my son. If I had it to do over, and Andrew came back to me in his same struggle, I know what I would now want to do. I would pack the car, grab my wallet and pull up alongside him as he walked down the street by his home. I would open the door and say “Get in. We are going for a ride together. We will crisscross this country for as long as we have to and as many times as it takes, making do for food and a place to sleep, while we go over every single struggle you have had in your short life that we have not talked about.” He might pause at this, but I would be unwavering: “Come on…get in.” I think he would give me a half smile and get into the car, thankful that I finally “got it.” This may seem like magical thinking to some. But for me, this is the story that I have come to understand about my son and me. It is still a painful story, but it is not as painful as being stalled without a story that provides love and understanding for both of us. This leaves one further thought to consider. My husband died from a cancer that few can survive without very early detection. He will not carry a legacy that he is somehow to blame for his ending. I can still spend days trying to track down where his disease might have begun. He is honored for all he achieved in his life and by those who loved him. Neither his life nor his ending will carry any kind of stigma. Those of us who loved him will, however, always feel like he left us too soon. My son Andrew’s ending is different. He will go unmentioned in general conversation. I have often felt the weight of comments like “I thought you were such a good family” or “you couldn’t save your own son” still hanging in the air around me. Now, I am thinking about this differently. It is, of course, no one’s job to mention Andrew. Now, I no longer hope or need this for him or for me, because what I needed most was to come to my own motherly position on his life, his ending and my role in this outcome. I needed to find a narrative that included understanding on behalf of both of us. From my perspective, and after weeks, months and years of introspection and heartache, I have finally come to my own conclusion about our lives together. This has been a hard-won struggle supported by the love and support of my family and friends. I can now own my story and his, because in my mind’s eye, we now “get” each other.

    Community Voices

    why have I become so numb lately? I have #BipolarDisorder

    I hate that I’ve become so numb lately and I can’t cry at all. My grandma who recently has been diagnosed with stomach cancer is doing chemo therapy and she has said she does not want me to see her for six months because she doesn’t want me to see her in such a weak state. She has raised me my whole life and I always considered her to be my mom. It’s been a month and I’ve had moments of pure anger and severe depression but mostly I’m numb and I wanna cry but can’t.
    I have bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder

    2 people are talking about this
    Jodi Whoriskey

    I Knew So Little About Cancer

    Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, I didn’t know much about cancer. My dad died in 2014 from stomach cancer, so I knew a little about it, how he felt and what he went through. But there was a lot I didn’t know. Now I’m seeing that other people don’t know as well, which I understand. One thing I have found since my diagnosis, if you have your hair, people don’t think you are as sick. If you don’t go through chemo and “just” radiation, people think you are lucky. Once you have gone through radiation (or chemo), people think you are done and cancer free. I’m honestly not sure when I will feel that I am cancer free. I had a follow-up mammogram six months after radiation ended, and it was a clean mammogram! Woo hoo! So excited, but I’m not saying “cancer free,” even though there was no evidence of disease. Prior to being diagnosed, if someone I knew was finished with chemo or radiation, I probably would have thought they were on the other side of their cancer battle and good to go. That’s what a lot of people think when they see me. The me that goes out for a drink or dinner is usually happy. What people don’t know is that I may have rested all day just to have enough energy to go out at night. Once chemo or radiation is done for many breast cancer patients, that is not the end of the treatment. My treatment for the next five years is hormone therapy. Not to go into too much detail, but I get a quarterly shot and take a daily pill. From this comes weight gain, fatigue and joint pain. Not everyone who has this treatment has the same side effects, so these are just my side effects. Unfortunately, taking a nap or taking a pill to offset the joint pain does not help alleviate the side effects. This will be my new normal for the next five years. There isn’t a magic cure to have the side effects go away. I will gladly deal with these side effects if it means a lower chance of recurrence. So, prior to being diagnosed myself, I had no clue that even though two different people have breast cancer, their story is not alike. There is so much more to their cancer story than the stage of their cancer. Their fight doesn’t end after surgery, chemo or radiation. They may be out smiling, having fun, looking like they are having a great time on social media, but in reality they may not be feeling that great. My diagnosis has brought me so many great things: closeness with friends and family, appreciation of life and definitely empathy for others.  I may have known so little about cancer before my diagnosis. I now know a bit more since my own diagnosis, but there is so much more to learn. Follow this journey on I’m Team Jodi.