Her inside does not match her outside and there are only moments when you can see that inside come through. But this ‘inside’/’outside’ business does not refer to a conflict of personality: instead, it refers to a conflict of health.
‘Positive attitude’ became one of her favourite lines and proves very effective, but it kills me inside when she can’t do the things she used to.
‘Can you hang out the washing for me? My arm doesn’t work.’
‘Can you get that for me? I can’t get my arm high enough to reach.’
‘I’d love to play a game of golf but I can’t anymore.’
‘Look at the dents! It’s because of the lymphoedema. I wish there was a way to get rid of this liquid.’ She points to the large newly formed dents in her left arm.
Although you can hardly tell that something is wrong, there are two main giveaways: her lack of hair, and her arm that now resembles a balloon.
She rubs her head. ‘It’s stopped growing! I don’t understand, it was growing and then it stopped!’
Her hair looks like a mottled grey cap made out of papier-mâché. When she rubs it, the cap ruffles a little but immediately goes back to the way it was.
‘Does it look different?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I say, pain touching the pit of my stomach.
The woman about which I am speaking is of average height, and is quite slender. She has aged well and smiles kindly from behind her shiny red-rimmed spectacles. I am proud of this woman and what she has achieved in life. Why this degree of attachment, may you ask? Well, I would reply, she is my mother.
Anna Grendon, the most courageous person I know, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2008.
Whenever I pause to think about the fact that my mum has cancer, I think of the advertisements on TV, the ones that show the black cells that form like a freaky little bug and then replicate and flow throughout the blood stream. Then I picture Mum’s face and I keep saying ‘It’s not possible.’ But it is. It’s reality.
I sit opposite her now and, once again, I wonder how a doctor can say she is dying; maybe I am still in denial. Is she too? ‘Quite possibly,’ she replies, ‘the line between a positive attitude and denial is so hazy.’
I clearly remember the afternoon that she was diagnosed. Her face had shiny lines trickling from her blue-green eyes to her jaw. I knew immediately that whatever the doctor had told her was not good. She sat down next to me and produced a book: Now what? Dealing with your parent’s cancer. This was how she chose to tell me, along with a few carefully selected words. Up ‘til now, I hadn’t looked inside it. I had ditched it just like I had The Puberty Book. It sat lonely, rejected and brand new at the back of my cupboard.
I now open the coloured, untouched pages and realised that maybe the chapters ‘Head Stuff’, ‘Heart Stuff’, ‘Practical Stuff’, ‘Medical Stuff’ and ‘Handy Stuff’ would have been useful in the early stages.
Mum’s mind reeled with the new information the doctor had provided. How was she supposed to cope with this?
She asked that for the first few months my father and I keep quiet about her condition. This helped in her adjustment to her new, uncertain future.
My father handled things by busying himself with many of Mum’s household duties, and over the next few months he also took on the role of driving her to various hospital appointments. She was in and out of hospital more times than I can count, undergoing as many as seven surgical procedures as well as going in for other things.
I’ve had a lumpectomy and auxiliary clearance, port insertion in my arm, port removal, port insertion in my chest, port removal, shoulder operation and another port inserted into my chest.’ She counts off on her fingers as she remembers.
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Was it really that many?
After the doctors had turned her into a piece of Swiss cheese by cutting out as much of the cancer as possible, she endured eighteen weeks of chemotherapy that incessantly extracted every kilojoule of much needed energy and caused her to lose her precious hair. Five weeks after this strenuous treatment she moved to Ballarat for six weeks of daily radiation therapy. She stayed in a boarding house specifically designed for people who live a significant distance away and need treatment for cancer. It was not easy for our family as we hardly ever saw each other.
‘It was a difficult but happy time for me,’ she smiles, her hand folded across her stomach. ‘I made so many great friends who were undergoing similar treatments, and made the most of my free time in a new place.’
Since then there have been many times when someone has answered the phone and one of Mum’s friends from the boarding house will have rung from his tractor ‘just to check up.’
In April 2009, Mum seemed to have defeated the abominable, frightening, ever-irritating disease, only needing to visit her oncologist for a check-up every few months.
By the time August knocked on our door, her prognosis took a very sharp and, in my opinion, illegal u-turn. The cancer had spread like a bright blazing bushfire. She now had metastases on her liver, lungs and spine. The lymph nodes throughout her chest were now also cancerous. To her horror, the oncologist gave her only between two months and two years to live.
Over the following few weeks her health declined rapidly and routine was now a distant, cloudy dream. Every call from normality was put on hold whereas medical visits went straight to the operator. A palliative care nurse was also added to the check list, regularly visiting to see how quickly the threatening darkness approached.
‘Boy does that get the message through,’ she jokes.
It would be a huge lie to say that she wasn’t devastated that her life had suddenly halved but she took it all in her stride and endeavoured to come to terms with everything. It seemed that all her plans for the future had been wiped out by ‘Cyclone Cancer’.
‘I spent the first few sleepless nights considering the horrifying prospect of not see my daughter grow up, finish school, go to uni, support her through her boyfriends, meet her future husband, not knowing my grandchildren — all of which I had always anticipated having the chance to do.’
How was she supposed to cope with all this as well as the physical aspects of the cancer gnawing away inside her?
I remember one drive home from a chiropractic appointment when she wasn’t her usual positive self.
‘You need to get a boyfriend,’ she told me.
‘What, Mum, why?’ She had never been pushy about relationships before.
‘You need to get a boyfriend, get married and have kids. Now.’
‘WOAH! NO WAY!’
‘But, if you don’t, I will miss out on it all.’
‘I’m sorry, Mum, I can’t do that. As much as I want you to see that, I can’t. I’m sorry.’
The guilt tore frantically at my heart, encouraged by her words. I knew that she wasn’t being completely serious, but there was an element of urgency to her words. She really does want to see that happiness and progress in my life, but no matter what we do, the doctors are telling us she won’t be able to.
She was prescribed an oral form of chemotherapy to combat the cancer. This drug did not cause her hair to abandon her body but the extreme toxicity of the medication was apparent when she was told that under no circumstances was anyone else to handle the tablets. If touching them could hurt you what could swallowing them do? We found out when her feet became so sore that she could hardly walk, when her mouth ulcerated and when she began to lose feeling in her hands and lose her finger nails.
After her hair grew back, she was looking more herself.
‘You’re looking good Anna,’ was the popular public opinion.
Whether she was feeling good was another matter. There was, obviously, a lot to come to terms with. She could no longer be everyone’s ‘go to’ person when a crisis occurred. Some in our family have still not fully grasped that concept. For years my family have sought the opinion of my mother on various matters as if she were a guidance counsellor.
‘Oh, I don’t know how to handle this … I know! I’ll ask Anna!’
‘I want to organise a family lunch … I’ll ask Anna to do it!’
This often has worked to their advantage because her mind works in such a way that she feels obligated to help them.
After a while the cancer markers, which are checked by regular blood tests, were well within the ‘normal range’ and her oncologist granted her a break from chemotherapy. You could see the change in her behaviour. She wasn’t as tired all the time, she looked brighter and refreshed. The toxic tablets were no longer pumping shocking substances through her system. It was like someone had removed the manacles from her arteries.
Now after yet another round of intravenous chemotherapy, she is going strong. She is on yet another break and seems to be fighting the cancer effectively. The two years are nearly over and it sure seems like she is going to live through them. From experience, I can assure you that a lot can happen in three months. But I am sure that the strength that she has inside and out can overshadow the black on both sides for as long as it takes.
Sarah Grendon is a first year student of Deakin University, studying Arts/Science. She is music, movie, TV and book mad. In her free time, you will always find her doing something that relates to one or a combination of those things. She hopes to score a job that involves writing creatively.