I learned early on that my mom is more fragile than most people.
Radiation treatments she received as a teenager for stage III nasopharyngeal carcinoma — a type of throat cancer — left her much more vulnerable to head injuries. And if a bone were ever to break in her face, it most likely would never heal.
My mom can get severe whiplash very easily, too, because she had so many muscles removed from her neck as part of salivary gland cancer treatment a few years ago. She has to use both hands just to lift her head up when she’s been lying down.
But my mom is still the strongest person I know.
Why my mom chose the riskier treatment
My mom was only 17 the first time she was diagnosed with cancer, so I wasn’t around yet. But the second time, she was 49, and I was 22. I’d always heard stories about how brave she was, but I don’t think I really believed them until now.
Once I understood the severity of her second cancer diagnosis, I was terrified. Because she’d already had cancer, treatment would be riskier. And this particular second cancer could only be treated with radiation. Normally, that wouldn’t be an issue, but it was for my mom. She’d already been irradiated in that same area, and doing so again could risk damaging an artery, causing her to bleed to death.
The only other treatment option was a lengthy and very complicated surgery. My mom might not survive the procedure. But if she did, the doctors believed it would leave her cancer-free. She took the chance.
Recovery at her own pace
The surgery lasted 10 hours. Randal Weber, M.D., removed the cancerous tumors, and Patrick Garvey, M.D., repaired her neck by taking muscle from her thigh and two important veins from her wrist. When my mom woke up, she was told it would be six weeks before she could walk and another six before she could move her head.
A week later, she was asking my dad for help in getting into her walker. At first, he refused, saying it was much too soon. But if you know my mom, you know you’re either going to help her get where she wants to go or she’s going to do it without you. So, eventually, Dad gave in. And soon he was calling to tell me that Mom was doing laps around the nurses’ station. Even the doctors were amazed.
Where my mom still struggles today
The cumulative effects of radiation and surgery have made eating more of a struggle for my mom as time goes by. In her early 20s and 30s, she drank a soda every day. But at some point, that had to stop. She switched to iced tea for a while, but eventually, doctors told her to stick with water.
It was hard for my mom to accept that swallowing had become so difficult. She’d use tons of butter and liquids to get down even the smallest bites of meat. And she’d cook bacon until it fell apart in her mouth, just to get a taste of it. But even then, she’d sometimes have to chew something, swallow it, then cough it back up and try again, because it had gotten stuck in her throat.
Today, my mom can’t drink or eat anything at all in the usual way. And because her remaining salivary glands can’t keep her mouth or throat moist, she uses a spray bottle to prevent them from becoming uncomfortably dry.
What I’ve learned from my mom
Today, my mom struggles the most with being heard. Her tongue no longer functions properly, so her speech is hard to understand. Sometimes, people ignore her because of this. She also hasn’t been able to find a job since she was laid off right before her second diagnosis. That’s pretty hard to accept for someone as industrious as she is.
Throughout my childhood, my mom always held down two jobs. No matter what, she’d have her regular career going and then a job on the side to make extra money. On top of that, she helped run the household and made it to every event at my school.
Being young, I had no idea what it took to do this. And I certainly didn’t realize how strong my mom had to be to do even half the things she’d been doing all her adult life.
Now, as the father of two young boys, I’ve really come to appreciate her strength. And by watching her, I’ve learned that you can do anything you set your mind to.