Thursday, March 12, 2009

Living with Dying: The Diagnosis

Originally published on MySpace, Mar 12, 2009

I find myself wanting to write and do a flurry of blogs and then nothing. It's like I get it all out, or enough to help settle my soul, and then I don't feel the need for a while. But I don't want to drop the ball with this blog. I know I have a whole lot more to write about. So if this feels a little forced... well, it is. It's not welling up in me shouting to be let out today, but I am giving it a little push instead.

I wanted to title this "The Beginning" but it's really not the beginning at all. I don't know when the beginning was and someday I am going to explore that. Let me do this, however, let me show you that I think the beginning was at least more than 2 years prior to the diagnosis.

This photo shows Harriett in July of 2005 when we were unpacking our house in Utah. I think she already shows signs of the cancer, as her right breast appears larger than the left. I know this is not an uncommon situation, but knowing how completely full of cancer/tumors the breast was at diagnosis, I sincerely believe it was well into development at this time.

It really doesn't matter even in the slightest. Nothing I can note or do or say will ever change what has happened. Nothing will make the disease go away or change what we've been through. Especially what Harriett has been through.

When we moved to Utah in July of 2005 we began, for the first time, our life as an extended family unit. My mother made the move with us so I could continue to be close to her and care for her. Initially we expected to find her an assisted living apartment. But as we settled into our new home it appeared that she could navigate our halls, the bathroom was large worked well for her and we had a step-in shower in our master bath. With a few simple tweaks we could accomodate her. I am so fortunate to have a husband that agreed to those living arrangements, and so she stayed. At the same time, several things made it difficult for Harriett to look for work in our new location so as a matter of convenience, she began caring for Mom. All in all it was a great plan and we stuck to it for a couple of years, allowing me to go back to work outside the home.

As the holidays approached in 2007 Harriett began complaining about her health. She felt sick quite often and felt less and less able to care for Mom. I wasn't very sympathetic and felt she was just tired of doing what she was doing it was her way of forcing me to take more responsibility for Mom's care. I felt annoyed. I didn't see Harriett being sick, I only knew what she told me. Eventually the girls began complaining about the downstairs bathroom, that Harriett wasn't cleaning up after herself and it was filthy. I could no longer be an ostrich, I had to look at the situation more seriously. Christmas passed and we started the new year. I began to do more and more for Mom as Harriett did less and less, eventually only doing what she could when I was at work.

Harriett had been losing weight for quite some time. We originally thought it was cool - what overweight person doesn't think losing weight without any effort isn't cool? Then, she had her teeth pulled, jaw bone trimmed and dentures made and fitted.* It was quite an ordeal and major oral surgery, and of course it explained why the weight was dropping, in our minds. At this point we just were not concerned about the weight loss.

By April it was apparent that something was seriously wrong. Harriett didn't keep much if any food down and she was having severe stomach pain. Although we had offered on many occasions to take her to the doctor, she'd always refused... until now. That in and of itself told us how very seriously ill she was. Alyssa had gall bladder surgery just prior to this and we suspected maybe Harriett's stomach pain was similar. We hoped.

I took Harriett to the ER toward the end of April. They looked her over and eventually said they were going to admit her to the hospital. They did every kind of test on her and in the end hospitalized her for a full week. On April 28, 2008 she was given the news. She has breast cancer. The cancer has also spread to her lymph nodes (bad) and into her bones. There was concern that it had also spread into her brain and that could be what was causing the nausea and vomiting. Fortunately, that was ruled out. On that day I called my boss and quit without notice. With Mom living with us and Harriett seriously ill, I could not hold a job and care for these two women either physically or emotionally. I consider that day the Black Friday of my life... I wonder what Harriett calls it?

*In retrospect I wonder about Harriett's oral surgery. As long as I have known her she had bad teeth. During our time in Utah, I noticed that one of her front teeth was moving when she talked. I didn't mention it, feeling that would be "rude" (ha!). Some time later, I noticed the tooth was gone. I did ask her about it then and she said her teeth were getting loose and she didn't know why. Without insurance she had to make the decision to get the rest of her teeth extracted and get dentures. It turned out to be much more of a major undertaking than "normal." Removing her teeth didn't just involve pulling them out, but her jaw bone had started to 'overgrow' so her gums were cut open and the bone was shaved down to a size & shape that could accomodate dentures. It occured to me much later, after her cancer diagnosis that perhaps the bone cancer had played a role in the loosening of her teeth. I supposed I will never know, but it will make me more aware about questioning things regarding my own body.

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