Relationships

Helping My Mom Through Her Cancer Healed Our Traumatic Relationship

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner··  13 min read
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Helping My Mom Through Her Cancer Healed Our Traumatic Relationship shutterstock

When people refer to “the C-word” I don’t think of a vulgar term for lady bits. I think of cancer. Probably because my mother was diagnosed with it last year, and I took on the role of the caring daughter who often drove her to her chemo and radiation treatments.

I faced the people in the waiting room, all tired, weary, scared, and looking for hope. I watched my mom sit on the examination table and dangle her legs like a child. I even got to go in and see the giant radiation machine, and that thing looked like some kind of interdimensional travel portal. 

It seems odd to speak of smiling and laughing during this period, but my mother and I grew closer than ever because of her diagnosis and treatment. We found comfort in developing a better bond. Her optimism has carried her through, and my sick sense of humor led me to crack some fun jokes. 

My mother started to fully realize her age and embrace it with good humor, and I giggled as she stuck out her tongue and said “aah” for the doctor, while he spent no less than 5 minutes shining a light in her mouth and going “hmm” to himself. These shared moments proved to me that not only can rough times bring out the best in people, but that cancer is not the end of the world.

People often talk about cancer as if it’s a foe, a villain who needs to be conquered or executed. They shout F-cancer and other angry things because they’re having trouble coping. It’s a long process that may work for others, but I prefer a different approach (one that doesn’t make me feel sorry for cancer since everyone hates it so much). I like to look at the fact that cancer is a natural process with many treatments. 

My mother and I don’t wish to hide from our mortality either. So instead of fearing death, or cancer, we embrace it. We joke about it and allow our faith to guide us through, no matter what comes.

Our Complicated Past 

My mom has brain damage. She doesn’t like to admit it or discuss her head injuries, but it’s a fact. The first serious head trauma occurred when she was a teenager. The next couple of head injuries were in my lifetime. She worked painting vans at the Chrysler Plant, and on two separate occasions, the sliding door of a van came off and fell on her head. These were spaced out by a few years, but the damage already done, combined with these blows, have affected her memory, reasoning, and life decisions.

It’s frustrating because she’s not good with balancing her finances, she loses track of time, she has trouble keeping up with conversations, and she can no longer pick up on social cues, but she’s functional, so it’s difficult to know where the brain damage stops and starts. 

My mom has brain damage that has affected her memory, reasoning, and life decisions.

When I was a teenager, we clashed a lot. She didn’t understand me or my desires, and I didn’t understand it was because her ability to properly communicate and absorb information had been damaged. Things got rough after she and my dad split up and my sister went to college. 

I started working when I was 15 to make sure I could take care of myself. I had this instinctual understanding that it was necessary. When I was 16, my mom’s father died. The loss of my grandpa really hit her. She was like a child, very selfish in her mourning and that left very little room for me to openly cope. 

I worked and threw myself into my friends at school. At one point, things got so bad my mom needed help with our rent, and I gave her the money. That stress added to other issues I dealt with from my father’s end, an abusive relationship, and the pressures of work and school. 

My Suicide Attempt

It was as if everything I did made everyone around me unhappy. I worked so hard but always felt like a burden, and began to believe that the world would be a better place without me. This idea grew every day.

All it took was a nudge to turn that idea into action. I had been contemplating suicide for weeks. Then the abusive relationship I was in ended, and my ex suggested that I kill myself. 

I didn’t attempt it because of him. I had been on the edge for some time. It just took someone else saying it to get me there. 

Whatever the reason, I was stupid and tried to kill myself with a giant bottle of Advil and a LOT of Wild Turkey. How I thought that would do it, I’ll never know, but I survived. I doubt it would have killed me. It messed up my stomach something fierce, that or the sulfur they gave me at the ER. Regardless, after my attempt, I was admitted to in-patient psychiatric care, and the day after I attempted suicide – for being too much of a burden – my mother came into my room and told me that I was too much for her to deal with. She relinquished custody to my abusive, alcoholic father. 

For a week, I stayed in a facility dreading this. I hadn’t spoken to my father in six months, but I wanted to live. I wanted to do good in the world and show people just how stupid suicide is (especially when attempting it with something like Advil).

Life on My Own

After that, things were odd. My dad was good for a while. My sister and I lived in his basement as if we had our own place. We worked and bought our own food. I paid for all my school supplies and field trips, but eventually, it blew up and we had to leave. We were homeless for a brief period, but thanks to some good friends, teachers, and co-workers, we were able to get our own apartment. I worked 40 hours a week while trying to finish high school AND make rent. It’s something no teenager should ever have to deal with. 

When I applied for college and tried to get a Pell Grant, I was advised that I needed to list myself as an orphan. That word made me cringe. I tore up the application and refused to even think about furthering my education until years later when I could accept my past.

For most of my twenties, my mom and I were very distant. She would ask to go out to lunch or we’d plan to see a movie and then she’d cancel at the last minute. I would already be standing in the lobby with my ticket, or sitting at the table by the time she finally canceled. 

We would make plans to go out, and then my mom would cancel on me at the last minute.

Instead of letting her carelessness embarrass or destroy me, I learned to remind myself that she has brain damage and that I don’t need other people to make me feel good about myself. It was a long process. There were good days and bad days. But over time, I grew comfortable with this. It became a mantra to help me control my emotions, “she has brain damage.”

My sister made it easier. We used the “she has brain damage” line for everything. To excuse her crappy taste in men, her inability to get some jokes, and her love of peas in salad (#Yuck). It’s become a running gag that helps us cope. 

Parenting My Parent 

When I got married and had kids, my relationship with my mother improved, but I stayed distant. I had no intention of allowing her or my father to disappoint my children or cause them the kind of grief they had brought on me and my sister. 

My mother continued to make immature decisions. At one point she was out of control. She accidentally ran drugs for a friend, she got roofied, and she smoked crack because all of her friends were doing it. 

She often called me and my sister for help or advice. She knew right from wrong after the fact, but I couldn’t tell if she understood what was happening in the moment or until given time for reflection. I would mention her head injuries and suggest that we could help look out for her. This upset her and she lashed out, at one point she screamed, “You think I’m an invalid!” and stopped talking to me for a while.

She had remained working at the Chrysler Plant well after her head trauma, and the “settlement” money they gave her was so small she should have sued her union for not standing up for her. But eventually, she married a man who also worked at the plant and seemed to have the same brain capacity. 

My Mother’s New Husband

He did not help our relationship or her financial status. He didn’t like her to be away from him, but also hated going out. He convinced her to move an hour away, but then got upset if she came to see us. She would drive out to see my daughter, her first grandchild, and within five minutes of stepping through the door her phone would light up. She never stayed long and always allowed him to interrupt whatever we were doing or talking about. 

I did my best to be civil and understanding. It was difficult because this reminded me so much of my father. Then, when the Chrysler company decided to outsource American jobs to Mexico, my mom lost her job. 

My mom would call and ask for advice, then forget it or discard it.

She and her husband were both given a large buyout. So big, in fact, that they could have paid off their new home with one and still had the other to live well on. But instead, they ate out every day, they bought a camper that they used once, a motorcycle that left the driveway on two occasions, and a pontoon boat they didn’t have a dock for, and soon the money was gone. 

These purchase decisions went against the advice my sister and I gave. My mom would call and ask for guidance, then forget it or discard it. She struggled to find work and her husband’s health failed. She went from job to job for a while and eventually got hired in another factory. Then her husband died of cancer in 2019. 

It was very hard on her. He went through chemo and radiation for esophageal cancer, after that he went in for surgery and never came out. He was in the hospital for months, breathing on a machine before he begged to be done. My mom was in denial for so long, that I was the one who had to explain to her that he probably wasn’t going to survive it. 

Again, she screamed at me. She hung up on me and didn’t speak to me for a few weeks. When she finally made her peace with it, we all went to the hospital and let him go while playing his favorite Pink Floyd song. I may not have liked the man, but my mom loved him, so I found his favorite songs and got them going. 

He passed mouthing the words to “Wish You Were Here.” I did what was best for them because I love my mom and my own maternal instincts told me it was the right thing to do.

My Mother’s Battle with Cancer 

Two years after the death of her husband, my mom discovered a lump on her neck. She went to the doctor and was instructed to have a biopsy done. From there, she had a CAT scan and a PET scan, and was diagnosed with throat cancer. 

Although she hasn’t smoked in years, she started smoking when she was 12 and smoked throughout most of my childhood. She’s also a sugar addict who drinks soda instead of water and isn’t a fan of vegetables. She’s diabetic, and diabetes and cancer have a complicated relationship. 

The diagnosis put me into problem-solving mode. Instead of resenting the past, I asked questions like: What can we do? What do you need from me? And when is your next doctor’s appointment? 

My sister lives three hours away, so it became my duty to make sure we got all the information and helped my mom make good medical choices. She was unsure of what to do. The surgery success rates looked promising to me. Chemo and radiation are hard. The side effects of poisoning your body with those treatments range from brain damage (yes, more), to lung damage, kidney failure, and other cancers (read that again, you can get cancer from radiation treatments meant to combat cancer).

Because her husband died after cancer surgery, my mom feared it. I typed up all the information from the various doctors we saw and sent it to my sister and my mother’s siblings. Everyone supported my mom, and so she chose chemo and radiation. 

I began showing up early so we could just hang out before her treatments. 

Driving her to and from these treatments has afforded us time to talk and really get to know each other again. One-on-one time without my children or other family members is something we haven’t experienced in ages. I’d forgotten how much fun my mom could be.

She may have a child’s sense of humor (she and my three-year-old are into poop and fart jokes), and her memory is worse than ever, but we started doing puzzles together and watching some old shows.

I began showing up early so we could just hang out before her treatments. That, and her elderly dog always needs an extra rub down. The poor thing has so many tumors and health issues I think she’s stayed alive just to make sure my mom gets through this.

We’re closer than ever because cancer changes everything. Once that diagnosis is there, time really laughs at us. It’s the ultimate reminder that no matter what our differences may be, or how much we have been through, our parents will not be around forever, neither will we, our children, and everyone we know. 

Closing Thoughts

Cancer is treatable and doesn’t always kill the people it inhabits, but even if that time comes, I am happy to know that my mom and I have shared recent laughs, love, and hugs. I am happy to know that she’s doing her best to reach out to others. Cancer helped us to put aside the past and look to the future together. 

My mother got through her rounds okay. It’s always hardest at the end. We’re in the interim. Next month she will have another PET scan to see how the treatments worked. No matter what happens, I’m glad we’re able to face it all together and be close like we were when I was a little girl. 

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