Yesterday was my mother's birthday. She was a wonderful woman: full of love, compassion, grace, and (yes) faith. She was always the first to arrive in the casserole brigade for anyone in need, sent notes to her friends for milestones (both good and bad), and shared in people's joys and woes. She set a good example of living well, being kind, and behaving honorably.
She contracted cancer at age 72. It was misdiagnosed for months. When she was finally diagnosed, the cancer had metastacized to multiple sites. The primary tumor was lung cancer - they hadn't looked for it because she was not a smoker. She suffered terribly during her illness. Bone metastases are, as it turns out, incredibly painful - as they can impinge nerves. Cancer also uses a great deal of energy and metabolism, leaving its host feeling quite sick.
She showed tremendous grace during her illness. While she was sad about being sick; not once did she ask "why me?". She didn't complain. She didn't moan. She did her best to maintain her sense of humor and remain pleasant and upbeat. She didn't just do that when she was out and about. I was with her, every day, and that was how she lived.
When she was confronted with treatment options, she made it clear that quality of life was more important than trying every treatment. She was very clear that she didn't want to take treatments that would depreciate her quality of life if they weren't likely to fix the problem. Time after time we were reassured that the chemotherapy was sure to help.
Mom died five months after being diagnosed. Five months after she and dad celebrated fifty years together. Mom died four months before my youngest son was born. Mom died nine months before my youngest niece was born. While mom lived a rich life and certainly, no one can reasonably argue that dying at 72 having seen all of your children grow up and have families can be considered tragic. I would, however, argue that I would not wish to die the way that she did.
Chemotherapy made my mother very ill. Chemotherapy did absolutely nothing to slow tumor growth - her cancer was aggressive and did not respond to the treatment at all. Ultimately, she failed due to malnutrition as much as from cancer. The biggest hurdle during the five months of her disease was a daily battle to try to eat anything and to keep anything down. This was the ongoing theme and prevented mom from going out of her apartment, socializing with anyone, and visiting (even on the phone).
My mother died with grace. But, she also died having suffered greatly and (somewhat) unecessarily. The pain due to metastases was handled as best we could with radiation (to reduce tumor size) and opiates. But, the illness due to chemotherapy and the resulting wasting away was not necessary. My mom died with faith in her doctors, faith in her religion, and faith in her family. Modern medicine failed mostly by not honestly portraying the road we faced. Informed consent requires physicians to tell us the bad news as much as the good. Last week, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal on how doctors die. Specifically, doctors die differently than we "lay people" do. Doctors rarely take advantage of chemotherapy - particularly in metastatic cancer. They know that the prognosis is poor and that chemotherapy produces a cascade of unpleasant secondary problems. Had we known what we later learned, mom's faith would have been better placed.
My mother died seven years ago.
Faith was 72 years old and I still miss her so.
I hope that when my time comes, I can follow her example and die with grace, dignity, and (yes) Faith.