This blog entry was inspired by the "comeback" theme recently announced for the first issue of Longshot magazine (http://longshotmag.com/).
The answering machine light was red when we returned from our weekend at the coast. I heard my mother’s voice. She sounded almost choked; she was having trouble getting out words.
I dialed her number right away. A few minutes later, my husband heard me sobbing and rushed in. He grabbed my arms and held me, his face a mass of compassion, his eyes filling.
I hung up. “The cancer’s come back,” I whispered. My mother had, we thought, beaten small-cell lung cancer, after enduring surgery, radiation and multiple regimens of chemotherapy.
I went online. Then I flew to my parents’ home. I told my mother not to give up while she winced in pain from the collapsed lung the cancer had brought on. I went to see her doctor with her. I asked a lot of questions. I took a lot of notes. Then I flew home and I went online again.
A friend suggested a clinical trial. I went online some more. I learned about a new drug called Iressa, which seemed to work particularly well for patients like my mother, who were dealing with cancer for the second time. The Food and Drug Administration still classified the drug as experimental, since it had had the unfortunate side effect of death for some patients in Japan. This worried my mother. I pointed out that recurrent lung cancer also came with this particular side effect. Still, she hesitated.
Then I found a lung cancer specialist right in my own city who was using Iressa. The specialist was a woman near my mother’s age – a good sign, I thought.
I called the clinic and asked, rather naively, “Is she taking new patients?”
There was a pause. Then the receptionist said, very gently, “Yes, she is.”
Somehow, I managed to pry my mother and father out of the town where they’d spent the past 20 years and moved them 3,000 miles across the continent; initially, they took refuge in my brother's apartment. The first time I visited them, shorn of their comfortable split-level ranch and most of their belongings, they looked lost, unfamiliar, shrunken. What had I done?
But almost as soon as my mother saw the specialist and got her first dose of Iressa, she began improving. She and my father found an apartment five minutes from my office and settled in; I drove over for lunch every Tuesday. She took up golf. She began traveling again. One night I got a call: “Guess where I am?” she trilled. When I was stumped, she giggled like a schoolgirl. “The Grand Canyon!” She'd always wanted to see it.
I got pregnant. When we found out the baby’s gender, I asked my parents if they wanted to know, too. My father shook his head. But my mother said yes. I went over to her and whispered in her ear. She clapped and exclaimed, “You hit the jackpot!” My father groaned. “Now I know,” he said.
I couldn’t get angry at her for spilling the beans. She’d hit the jackpot herself.
The Iressa worked for three months, then six, then nine, then 12. On the day of my son’s first birthday party, it was 75 degrees, with sunshine pouring out of a clear blue sky. He wore a miniature Hawaiian shirt and blue shorts and toddled happily about the yard while my mother and father sat on the deck and watched his every move.
But nearly all my mother did that day was sit. She looked tired. I stared at her, then turned away. She was going to be fine.
Thirteen months went by. I’d gone online again and learned that the Iressa's effectiveness was peaking; we were on the downslope now. I told my brother this, carefully. He didn't want to hear it.
By the fourteenth month, my mother’s decline was becoming obvious. She kept forgetting things. She was having trouble following conversations. My brother told me that the last time he'd taken my parents out to dinner, she'd been unable to get in and out of the car without assistance. She stopped cooking, saying the pots and pans were too heavy.
I went back online. My mother’s symptoms were consistent with the cancer spreading into her brain. I wondered how to say this to my family. I told myself I had to be the prepared one.
The specialist ordered a head MRI. The night before, my mother called me. She was terrified.
I told her I had to work in the morning, but I could get away to accompany her to her doctor’s appointment in the afternoon to discuss the results.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Late the next morning, as I was starting to think about lunch, my cell phone rang. A woman at the hospital said, "There's been a problem with your mother." She told me to come right away.
It was a 20-minute drive. First I told myself everything would be fine. Then I told myself this might be it. Then I told myself to just get there in one piece and deal with whatever I found when I got there.
I had to ask for directions three times before I found her, but each time, I got the feeling I'd been expected. When I finally reached the right room, a nurse immediately retreated behind a curtain, where I heard her say, "The daughter is here." I heard a strangled cry. It was my father attempting to say my name.
She was gone. She'd made it most of the way through the MRI, then collapsed. She'd had a pulmonary embolism, something I later learned can be brought on by extreme stress. The staff had worked on her for 30 minutes, but she'd never regained consciousness. Her comeback was over.
The MRI showed that the cancer had spread throughout her brain. By the time she walked into the hospital that morning, she'd already been facing the end.
But: By the time she walked into the hospital that morning, she'd lived seven full and happy years since learning that she had lung cancer. By the time she walked into the hospital that morning, she'd seen her son's college graduation, her daughter's wedding and her grandson's first 15 months.
By the time she walked into the hospital that morning, the cancer had come back, but so had she.