I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother lately. October will mark six years that she’s been gone. She died of primary peritoneal cancer. Do you know what that is? Before her diagnosis, I’d never even heard of it.
A couple of years before she died, she began complaining of pain in her abdomen and having difficulty using the bathroom. She said she went to see a doctor, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with her. I asked her how that was possible. Did they run tests? What did they say? They must have shed some shred of light on what was happening.
As months went by, her pain increased. She would take laxatives like they were candy. I kept asking her to see another doctor and find out what was happening. She’d placate me, and tell me she saw a doctor and they said they couldn’t do anything about it. Of course, this answer was completely unacceptable. Either she was brushing off whatever the doctor was telling her, or she wasn’t even going at all.
My parents are immigrants. They’re from the old school of thinking where one does not visit a doctor unless a limb is falling off. Going to a doctor risks hearing bad news (they actually said that to me once, believe it or not). They often cited a friend of theirs who visited a doctor for a small procedure and he nearly bled to death. It was stories like that that kept them away from managing their health as they should.
As time went on, my mother got worse. I begged her to see someone. I offered to drive her and go in with her and ask questions on her behalf. But she always refused, making it sound like it wasn’t important. I was pulling my hair out at her stubbornness. She finally told me that she didn’t want to go to the doctor, in case it was cancer – as if not going would somehow make it disappear on its own.
After a year or so of living in pain, she finally did see a specialist and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer isn’t the end of the world. It’s cancer, yes. But it’s curable if caught early.
Surgery was scheduled for my mother and, on the day of her operation, my father and I sat in the family waiting area at the Mass. General after she was wheeled in to the operating room.
A short time later (far too short for surgery to have been completed), a nurse came to us and said the surgeon wanted to speak with us in one of the private rooms. My father and I sat next to each other, playing with our half empty cups of coffee, trying not to talk about what the doctor may have to tell us.
The doctor explained to us that my mother had primary peritoneal cancer. The ovarian cancer had gone on far too long untreated and now her entire abdomen was filled with cancer. It was cemented to her major organs. He asked us to imagine pouring a bottle of glue into a bag of groceries. That’s how it looked. He couldn’t operate. He couldn’t do anything.
My father kept looking at me as the doctor spoke. I asked him if he understood what the doctor was telling us. He shook his head, no. “Mom is dying,” I told him. “The doctor is telling us that the cancer has spread too much. She’s not going to make it, Dad.” And I held his hand while we cried.
Eight months later, she was gone.
Six years later, I still find myself hanging onto some small degree of anger at her. If only she’d followed up on her health, if only she’d advocated for herself, or let someone else advocate for her. If only she’d taken better care of herself and received a diagnosis and treatment sooner, she might be alive now.
I could say she didn’t know better. She didn’t believe in seeing doctors unless you were extremely ill. It doesn’t really matter now. But she might have lived. I wouldn’t be missing her all the time. My father wouldn’t be alone. She would’ve seen my daughters grow into women. She would’ve been here for me to call when life is sometimes just too much.
She might have lived.