What I wish I knew before my mom got brain cancer… the value and limits of time.
For me, Friday, September 12 was like any other day in the life of a presidential campaign staffer. Working from dawn to dusk, doing everything and anything to push the ball just a touch forward in the task of getting John McCain elected as the next President of the United States. I lived and worked in Tallahassee, FL and was the Deputy Southeast Regional Campaign Manager for McCain for President.
That night, a few campaign staffers and I headed up to Marietta, GA for a GOP Unity Rally on behalf of Senator Saxby Chambliss and the Georgia Republican Party. Nearly a thousand Republican volunteers from throughout the state would be congregating, and it was a perfect time to sign up volunteers, recruit people for coalitions, and generally show the flag on behalf of Senator McCain. I had arranged for the Senator to call in to the rally and express his thanks for their support.
The night before I had talked with my mom, and I got the impression she wasn’t feeling well. During the day on Saturday, I talked with her and again got the distinct impression that something just wasn’t right. She insisted that I call her when I got back to Tallahassee that evening and that I shouldn’t worry.
The event was a success, and we were all excited about having gotten so many people signed up and engaged in the campaign. In the months before, the Obama campaign had placed staff in Georgia and tried hard to make Georgia competitive. With nothing but volunteers and me and my teams’ efforts from Tallahassee, we organized the state, built coalitions, and flexed our muscle via earned media events and scared the Obama staffers out of Georgia and into North Carolina.
I dropped everyone off at their respective homes and was entering the code to get into my apartment complex while I was on the phone with my mom. The sun was setting on what had, for me, largely been a great day. Up until that point, Saturday, September 13 had been a very successful day, and I was excited about the future. For my mom, it would be an entirely different story.
As I spoke to her, mom seemed so calm as she described to me the events of the night before and then, with what seemed to come out of nowhere, she said, “They found a mass in my head.” I believe my initial response was pure disbelief, and when she confirmed for me what she had just said, I immediately started to have a panic attack. I had to hang up the phone because I just needed to scream as loud as I could, something that I had honestly never done and have never done since.
I called back and spoke with my cousin who walked me through the events of the following day, which lead to this grim discovery. On Friday, my mom had noticed that her tongue felt thick. She called her various doctors and sadly, none of them returned her calls. She called my aunt and they decided to go to the emergency room.
Initially, my mom was told that it was likely an allergic reaction to something and she was given a prescription for an EpiPen. While getting the prescription filled at the store, mom had a full seizure and back to the emergency room she and my aunt went. It is then that they performed the CT scan and found the mass.
I wanted to drive back to Savannah right away, but between crying and already being tired, I couldn’t see clearly to do that. I went back to my apartment and began to research everything and anything as it related to brain tumors. Everything I read made me even more upset. Eventually, I went to sleep as I was crying so much I could barely see the computer screen, let alone make sense of anything I was trying to read.
The mass was large, and it had tentacles forming something like a dumbbell in my mom’s brain. The CT and MRI had suggested a Glioblastoma Multiforme Brain Tumor (GBM). A GBM is one of those diagnosis that, by and large, has had very limited hope for a long time. Innovations in treating, let alone curing, GBM have not been forthcoming. Having been so involved in politics, I knew that Senator Ted Kennedy had been recently diagnosed with the same tumor and had successful surgery to remove the tumor. I went to work researching where he went to have that done.
My mother seemed so calm as we sat in the hospital room the night before her biopsy. She wasn’t crying and showed no sign of even being nervous about what might lie in front of us. I on the other hand was a mess. I tried to keep a brave face, but I couldn’t. I was scared, sad, angry, and just about every other emotion you can imagine.
We scrambled to get all the necessary forms completed in advance of the biopsy because I was informed that if the tumor were operable; they’d likely go ahead and remove it at the same time. Worried about what condition my mom would be in afterwards, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
It was random chance that my aunt and I were walking down the hall when the surgeon came out of the operating room. He informed us that the tumor was inoperable and that it very much looked like a GBM, but would need the path report to confirm that diagnosis. Based on what he saw, he said he thought my mom had less than 3 months to live. We were dumbstruck and heartbroken. Even writing this now, I can feel that helpless feeling that I felt that day in the hospital. With everything in my being, I felt that those words just couldn’t be true.
In researching Senator Kennedy’s experience with a GBM, I saw that he went to Duke. He had surgery, was getting treatment, and doing relatively well, all things considered. I called Duke, got all the information to get a second opinion, and camped out in front of the path lab waiting on the slides so I could send the package to away in hopes my mom would be accepted as a patient.
There was no way that I could or would accept that my mom had less than 3 months to live, thus I went on a one man campaign to ensure that she got into to see the same surgeon that worked on Senator Kennedy’s tumor. My goal was to give my mom the best chance that there was to ensure she would survive this diagnosis and disease.
My mom’s 3-month diagnosis turned into an incredible 18-month experience. Through all the ups and downs over those 18 months, you might be surprised to know that, aside from the initial conversation about her possible death just before the biopsy, my mom and I only talked about her death one more time.
In February of 2010, mom and I made our final trip to Duke. It was on this trip that we had the final conversation about her possible death and she laid out for me her thoughts, as best she could, on the experience that she had gone through in fighting this tumor.
The doctors informed us that the tumor had started to grow again and that we were running out of options and were likely at the end of the line. Most people at this point would assume that we would have had Hospice assistance, but we didn’t. Even after returning home, we still did not have Hospice.
On the return home, mom shared with me that she had few regrets in life. She would do a few things differently, but all in all, she was pleased with how her life had turned out. She wasn’t angry that she had this tumor, nor was she angry that God was cutting her life short. She felt that it had all happened for a reason and that she was confident that God would use this experience she was going through for something better. She had a few people that she wanted to talk with before her journey was over and, if possible, wanted to make a trip to Hawaii. Her strength and bravery was just amazing. I was in awe.
On the other hand, I was a mess. I spent every moment of my time not spent working or taking care of mom, researching other treatment options, calling medical centers, and sending medical records to get another opinion. Sometimes those calls were so hard that I had to call back because I couldn’t control my crying. I was not prepared at all to lose my mom. I was not ready.
On February 28, my mom fell down and hit her head. She seemed fine and the doctor from Duke spoke with us and suggested that unless she seemed to be in pain that we wait and take her to her primary doctor in the morning. Mom seemed fine the rest of the day and evening, however the next morning she began to go downhill.
That Monday, I still thought we had more time! I spent the morning with her and then ran errands in the afternoon to go ahead and purchase the cemetery plot, send off yet for another 2nd opinion, and then have a conversation with my mom’s nurse at Duke about a possible hospital to hospital transfer. The nurse from Duke was the one who actually told me that we were at the end, and that there weren’t other options or opinions and that what my mom needed now more than ever was to be given permission to die. To acknowledge how hard she fought, but to let her know that it was okay for her to let go.
I returned to the hospital, and together with my family and a couple of my mom’s best friends, we sat there with her. By this time she was in a coma. I asked everyone not to cry or be sad while we were with her. We talked about my mom’s favorite flowers and a tear shed from her eye. The nurse at the hospital told me that this could last just tonight or could go on for some time, but almost as quick as she said that it seemed to come to an end. I told my mom how much I loved her, and how proud I was of her fight. I assured her that she would be going from my arms to the waiting arms of her mother and father, and that all would be okay.
Without notice, mom woke up and looked right at me. She turned her head to look at her sisters and friends and then took her last breath. Her death was both peaceful and beautiful.
When it was over, then I cried. I cried out how much I wish I had done more. I cried at how sorry I was that I hadn’t done more. I cried because while she was at peace with what she had been through, I was not, nor was I even ready. I felt like I needed more time.
Since my mom’s death, I have gotten involved with the National Brain Tumor Society as the Lead Advocate for Georgia. Additionally, I am a brain tumor caregiver mentor with Immerman Angels. I want to use the experience I went through and the lessons learned to help others going through a similar situation and try my best for the experience my mom went through to be used to help benefit others.
It should be noted that when I read Senator Kennedy’s book, True Compass, he referenced his own desire to share his experience with GBM so that he could offer hope to those who faced a similar diagnosis. Knowing Senator Kennedy’s experience showed me the path to hope for my mom, and for that I am grateful.