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Ode to joy

"The brain tumors have not responded to radiation -- they've grown," the doctors said. Another seizure had sent Mother back to the hospital. She asked for a second opinion and her medical oncologist agreed.

"Find me hope," Mother said.

"I will," I said.

And so we went to the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center and met the doctor who would manifest hope, be victorious over the brain tumors, keep the seizures at bay, and become her close ally and confidant during her treatment.

He recommended an advanced form of radiation, which utilizes precise measurements and targets each tumor in three dimensions rather than two-dimensional full brain radiation. If it worked, Mother could possibly have another year to two years of life. She smiled. "When do I start?"

The intense radiation made Mother extremely tired, and the accompanying chemotherapy wiped her out for a couple of days after each treatment. She completed her first cycle of chemo and had started on her second when the side effects started to kick in -- anemia, low platelets, her CBC could not sustain treatment. We quickly learned what is worse than taking chemo -- not taking chemo and being sent home.

The Cancer Center did a follow-up CT scan in early March to test the success of the radiation therapy. Mother was given great news. The radiation worked; the tumors were shrinking. Huge relief washed over her face and we celebrated with a scotch that evening.

We'd turned a corner, or so we thought.

Mother restarted chemo, but by now it was taking three, sometimes four days to recover. She also started experiencing an odd catch in her throat, accompanied by a heavy wet cough, making eating and drinking difficult. Soon, she was so weakened that she couldn't take a step. The coughing was constant and food was too hard to swallow.

Mother was admitted to Memorial for a chest CT scan. The doctors ruled out pneumonia but gave us extremely negative news. It appeared that chemo had not worked its magic and that the cancer in her chest was raging out of control. Cancerous lymph nodes were the cause of the catch in her throat as they were pressuring the bronchial area and esophagus, and malignant fluid had filled in her chest wall.

Mother and I called her radiation oncologist and inquired if radiation could be used to decrease the lymph nodes. He suggested immediate therapy as soon as we could get her out of the hospital and back home. I brought her Persian cat up to her room on Saturday and Sunday.

Homeward bound. This was the new goal. Get Mother home and back to her docs at the Cancer Center.

One of the oncology nurses who had assisted in a horrific failed procedure to drain Mother's lung, with kindness and great wisdom, asked me what our plans were with Mother; had we considered hospice care. Nothing ever prepares you for this -- no matter how real the situation is, how much research, how many phone calls you might have made.

We talked and I knew in my heart what was happening. I called my brother and sister, and my Aunt Cynthia. "Come up," I said. "Help me get her home."

Mother came home around noon on Tuesday, April 6. A hospice nurse met us at the house. Cynthia was there when Mother came into the house. Mother sat on the couch in the living room -- her cat hopped up into her lap and curled himself around her arm. Tommy fixed her a cup of tea. The nurse talked with all of us about home hospice care, who they were, what it was, what to expect.

As the nurse was filling out paperwork, it became clear that Mother was having difficulty breathing. The nurse suggested that Mother go the hospice facility at St. Francis, get stabilized and then come home. I rode with Mother in the ambulance and helped her get settled in her room.

Tommy and Cynthia arrived and Alice came with Hayden shortly thereafter. We never left her side. Susan, the radiation oncology nurse, came from the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center.

Toward the later part of the afternoon, I said, "I wish we had Mother's favorite symphony." Tommy disappeared for a moment and returned with a CD player and a Cleveland Orchestra recording of Beethoven's Ninth. Mother listened to the symphony and after the last notes of "Ode to Joy," she took her last breath and slipped into peace -- three months to the day of her first seizure and emergency ride to the hospital.

There is a picture at the Cancer Center; on it is written: "Cancer is so limited. ... It cannot cripple love, it cannot shatter hope, it cannot corrode faith, it cannot eat away at peace, it cannot destroy confidence, it cannot kill friendship, it cannot shut out memories, it cannot silence courage, it cannot invade the soul."

Mother fought a valiant battle -- with grace, dignity and sheer courage. It was a privilege to be at her side, an honor to be her daughter and a blessing to have her as my best friend.

-- This concludes Carolyn Carroll's Prisms of Hope, a journal of caring for a dying parent. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

  • Ode to joy

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