Survivor Guest Post: No More SugarcoatingThe Breast Cancer Site
Guest Post By: Sheryle Cruse
Once upon a time, my mother had a stroke that landed her in a care facility. Her life changed, ergo, my life changed. And, it was assumed that, as her daughter, I would accept this caregiver responsibility with joy. Yay for me. Sensing my joy yet?
Since then, I’ve learned the frustrations and the outright danger of trying to sugarcoat issues, especially after my cancer diagnosis.
For years, I tended to Mom. I anticipated her ever-changing health needs. I attended her doctor’s appointments, quarterly care conferences and called her twice weekly.
My husband and I have tried to make things as sweet as we could for her: flowers, cards, gifts. We’d eat lunch with her often. Each year, we buy her a birthday cake.
Years of this. Challenging these years further was the fact that Mom and I already had an enmeshed mother-daughter relationship. I had decades of her minimizing me, including my eating disorder struggles and the abuse we both endured.
She’d also criticize my decisions for her care, health and safety-wise, because they were not enjoyable for her.
Mom often laughed at me, at my earnest attempts to help her. Stroke-affected laugh? Or deliberate, I’m-going-to-hurt-you-laugh?
I have addressed this in therapy, especially now, since my 2017 breast cancer diagnosis.
For that was the beginning of tests, surgery and treatment. Oh, and of being terrified in a particularly cancer-y kind of way.
Now, in that framework, cue my sugarcoating, a/k/a, no matter what life-threatening disease I’m experiencing, I’m going to make it okay for Mom.
I was sick in more than one way, huh?
But, hey, I was convinced I could do this “caregiver with cancer thing.” Yeah sure, life-altering change. Just let me call her two days before my bilateral mastectomy and see if there’s anything she needs?
I’d downplay my terror whenever I’d interact with her. Once diagnosed, it would be months before I’d be able to see her again. Two months of testing, then, my surgery, and exactly six weeks of healing there. And then, a course of radiation, lasting another six weeks. I could not travel. It was about healing and minimizing stress.
Mom “seemed” to have accepted that. She’d say things like, “Your health is important.”
I continued to keep in contact with her by phone; likewise, I participated in her care conferences via speaker phone as well. I sent her cards, gifts and personal care items. I did this while I had my surgery drains in. I did this while I had T-Rex arm mobility and couldn’t use a can opener. I did this while my irradiated, burned skin was peeling. I did this while I was processing my different body and life.
Women are no strangers to carrying on. We have been diagnosed and treated while we simultaneously take care of spouses, children, parents, pets, carpooling and full-time work schedules.
I’m not Joan of Arc here (although we both got burned). But all of this highlights the ridiculousness of the task managing, the sugarcoating, the “making cancer nice” for everyone else while we actually try to recover from it.
I wasn’t fully grasping this absurdity yet. We finally visited my mother for her birthday. I coordinated the party plans; we bought a sheet cake and attended her big day. The event went well.
“Happy Birthday!” A good enough effort?
I think you can guess my answer.
When would we see her again? I’m all better now. After all, she had proof. I was at her birthday party.
Let me find that big hole of mine again, so I can just keep digging.
Life further derailed my plans to see her. Yes, I did try to see her. My husband’s back issues and my back issues both flared up without warning. That thwarted some visits. Seeing her required a four-hour car trip. Nope, not happening. I was also still exhausted from radiation and that interfered with other attempts. And then, our beloved cat, my radiation buddy, Gracie, also died, months into my recovery. That loss was especially devastating.
Still, with all of that happening, Mom asserted, “You had surgery and radiation and you don’t have cancer anymore.”
There was only room for one vulnerable adult, needing care and, guess what? It wasn’t me.
I felt hopeless. In my sugarcoating efforts to not scare her, had I made breast cancer “no big deal?” Had I done that?
Mom seemed to be unwilling to accept why I wasn’t back to being her healthy daughter, catering to her needs. Her passive-aggressive comments soon impacted my stress levels. At routine checkups, doctors and nurses commented about my racing pulse. I was ever-aware of stress and recurrence. Cancer could happen again if my mental state continued to poison my physical being.
I soon found myself hating my sweet, elderly, vulnerable adult of a mother.
How’s that for Daughter of the Year?
This was not working. I needed to remove the sugarcoat. I had to stop making cancer okay for her.
Sweeter Strategies Instead:
With that being said, no, I’m not telling her I’m going to die a gruesome death and it’s all her fault.
No, now, I’m in the process of formulating other coping mechanisms. They’re not perfect; they don’t please my mother. But they are self-preservation. And that is what I need.
“I’m Hanging in There.”
Mom would ask how I was feeling, never wanting any other answer than, “I’m healed. Nothing bad will happen again.” So now, I repeatedly utter, “I’m hanging in there,” which neither sugarcoats my reality, further exhausting me, nor terrifies her.
“When I Know More, You’ll Know More.”
I also make this statement during our conversations. Technically, I’m in “survivorship.” I get monitored every three months with a cancer antigen blood test. And, so far, my numbers are good.
But I’m still healing. And, I’ve also had a couple of recurrence scares, including a potential blood clot and a suspicious mass. Thankfully, those scares were simply that; for now, I seem to retain my survivorship status.
Nevertheless, cancer is overwhelming enough to manage with my own emotions involved. I cannot bring my mother into that.
Therefore, I’ve explained I don’t have concrete answers to give her. Making cancer perfectly safe for her is not something I can achieve. So, need- to- know, in its most mercenary form.
I’m Unable to Do That Now.
I also have erected steel boundaries about what I will and what I will not do for her.
I am going low contact with her now. Her needs, her health and safety issues are met, via her care facility. I have not forgotten about her. But I cannot be around her as I once was. I have recently seen her a few times, but they are short visits, too short for her to get a dig in at my expense.
It’s about my reaction to her, right now; it feels carcinogenic. I pray and I practice self-care (lighting A LOT of candles, FYI) and I manage her, on more of my terms now. And that has to be enough.
I’m detaching the sugarcoat from my reality. I do that with “afar.” It’s not just geography, but it’s with realistic expectations.
Afar is my healthy proximity. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I could say my diagnosis and treatment experience was a rallying, love-infused, mother-daughter bonding time. It is not. I do what I can for her. But I take much-needed distance. Distance helps me heal.
Take Care of You — Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It:
As diagnosed caregivers, we must prioritize ourselves. No easy feat.
For, because of the vulnerable loved ones in our lives, all focus goes to that individual. Somehow, it’s just assumed that we, as caregivers, will stay healthy indefinitely. There is no such guarantee.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if/when you simply cannot. No judgment, no shame.
You and I are called to live a life which has meaning and health, in spite of caregiving and/or cancer. You just cannot sugarcoat it. Give yourself permission to live instead.
Copyright © 2019 by Sheryle Cruse