I was asked to speak Tuesday night at the team meeting for the Relay for Life of Westminster. I was not speaking as the editor of Patch, but rather as a caregiver who supported my mother through her battle(s) with cancer.
American Cancer Society Relay for Life events take place all over the country and raise millions of dollars that go to supporting cancer patients and their families as well as towards funding vital research and education programs. The great thing about this event is that most of the money that is raised in the Westminster community, stays in the Westminster community to support cancer patients and educational initiatives.
I accepted the invitation to speak and shared the following information about my experience as a caregiver.
When my mom was 43 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it. Ten years later she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It was stage 4, we knew it was serious.
My mother was a teacher at for 28 years and would likely still be teaching if not for the stomach cancer. When she got breast cancer she was scared but strong. When she got the stomach cancer diagnosis she was scared and strong but also seemed to know that this would be a battle for her life. And even though she is no longer here, I like to think that she won.
Don’t get me wrong, the cancer spread fast in the last few months of her life and in the last six weeks she was pretty out of it. But for 2.5 years she made that cancer seem like a common cold. She stayed active, she traveled, she played with her grandchildren every chance she got, she ate cotton candy and cheesesteaks and drank liquids during her meals (all no-no’s if you've had most of your stomach removed). She lunched with friends and shopped til her bank account hurt. She was a mom and a sister and a wife and a grandmom and a friend, and cancer couldn’t take any of that away from her.
I realize it’s natural to lose your parents and I know it's a loss that is profound for most. But there’s something unique about being a female and watching your mom fight cancer. Being one of her caretakers was a bittersweet experience.
In some ways I’m so thankful that I was able to support my mom in her darkest hours, that I could make her laugh, that I could share my children with her, that I could tell her that hair was just a nuisance anyway, that I could look at her scars and portacaths and liquid food and love her even more, that I could take all the things she taught me about being a good caretaker and use it to care for her. And then there’s the part that is just horrific. Watching someone you love so much, someone you respect, someone you feel like you still need so much, wither away, is unbearable.
I was fortunate that my mother had many caretakers including her husband. I was able to get some distance when I needed it. I know for some caretakers, like my best friend whose husband was diagnosed with Leukemia in July, caring for the cancer patient becomes your new life and identity. And for each of us, the role of caretaker is different--emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally.
And perhaps that is why I have always found such a strong sense of support and belonging in this Relay for Life. People just know, the people involved 'get it'.
I started Team Donna Griffith when my mom was strong and fighting stomach cancer. She was a part of the team and Relay served as a way for family and friends to rally around her. She passed away in 2009 and since then, the Relay has served as way to honor and remember her. And unfortunately, each year I have to add names of family and friends who are fighting or who have died from cancer to our list of those for whom we Relay.
And finally, I relay for my children. I relay for them because I don’t want them to have to be a caretaker or to fight the battle themselves. But I also want them to see the overwhelming support for this cause. I want them to see that Nonna was not alone in her battle and understand the importance of supporting eachother in this journey to overcome cancer.
Now is the time to start a team or join a team if you want to get involved in the Westminster Relay for Life. Just visit the website at www.relayforlife.org/westminster to learn more.