Your Mother Has Cancer
By Tamar Wiener
Your mother has cancer.
Those four words have bounced around in my head like ping pong balls since the first day I heard them, haunting me ever since to this day. I was living in Austin, Texas at the time and my mother and stepfather, who lived in Ohio, planned an impromptu trip to visit me. I was confused at their last-minute visit but comforted and excited that they wanted to spend time together. Little did I know, the purpose of their trip was not simply to visit me, but rather to sit me down in their hotel room, look me in the eye, and say those four unforgettable words: “Your mother has cancer.”
My mother, my rock, the strongest, fiercest, most genuine woman I have ever known… was diagnosed in July 2017 with a very rare and aggressive form of advanced pancreatic cancer that had already metastasized to her liver and lymph nodes. And I, a young and inexperienced 27-year-old at the time, unexpectedly had to face the realities to come: chemo, radiation, caregiving, and the high likelihood that no matter what we do or how we do it, my mother would soon die. Our lives were instantly overwhelmed by oncologists and nurses and talk of chemotherapy. Nobody told me to my face, but I heard that frightening word whispered here and there and it shook me to my core: Terminal. My mother’s life was given an expiration date sooner than any of us were prepared for.
In all my 27 years of life up to that point, I had never seen my mother cry even a single time until she was diagnosed with cancer. One day, my mother said she was embarrassed to remove her wig in front of me as the hair loss had suddenly worsened. When she finally did, uncovering her patchy hair most of which she had lost the night before, she instantly burst into deep, painful sobbing. “It’s so hard,” she cried to me, “but I need you to believe that I will live!” My mother, even broken down in raw, agonizing tears in front of her own daughter, still refused to surrender.
Her prognosis changed several times throughout chemotherapy and radiation. At diagnosis the doctors said she had 3 months to live, then after some improvement from the first chemo and radiation in the fall they said maybe even until the end of summer 2018! A strange type of hope came over me: hope that her prognosis will lengthen and she will live longer, yet simultaneously knowing that whether she was given a few months or until the end of the summer, the ending was still the same. After her second attempt at chemo failed in February 2018, the doctors had a clear and urgent message for me as her daughter: “Your mother is going to die sooner than we thought and will not live to see summer, or even your 28th birthday, at all.”
It was in that moment that I immediately made the choice with no hesitation whatsoever to leave behind my life in Austin, Texas and move in with my mother in Ohio as her full time caretaker, none of which I was mentally prepared for. It’s tragic enough to have to watch someone fall apart before your eyes, but the tragedy is significantly amplified when you’re caretaking for the person who gave you life. As my mother’s caretaker, I helplessly watched as pancreatic cancer robbed her of the ability to walk, stand, eat, drink, talk, and move, each one by one, and eventually also took away her consciousness and ability to respond. Throughout all of this, not once did she ever complain.
Just before my mother lost the ability to speak, against every oncologist’s prediction, my mother lived long enough to celebrate my 28th birthday together in her bedroom. We ate cake off of paper plates in her bed, and she sang “Happy Birthday” to me one last time. Shortly after, my mother could no longer speak, but even in her silence I could hear her singing to me as she did on that day. No matter how strong the cancer was, my mother refused to give up until her very last breath the morning of May 17, 2018 at the age of 61 years young after an aggressive 10-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Meanwhile, two weeks before my mother passed away I had received two heartbreaking calls on April 30, 2018. My brother in Israel called to tell me the news that my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer (primary unknown) and that she had about a month to live, and 12 hours later another call to tell me that she had unexpectedly passed away. In a short two week period, I had suddenly lost the two most important women in my life, both to the same terrible and destructive disease. A stampede of questions infiltrated my mind: Why me? Why us? What did we do wrong? How am I supposed to continue my life without them? Am I next?
Just as I was not prepared for my mother and grandmother to die, I was also not prepared to live a year without them. They didn’t get to share the joy of me making Aliyah to my homeland, or reuniting with my family. I can’t call my mother for advice or to tell her about my weekend, yet even now a year and four months later I still pick up the phone to call her, momentarily forgetting that she is no longer alive. They will never get to share in my happiness if I get married one day, or to love the children that I may have as they had loved me.
Despite all of these losses and the void in me that has been left behind, their passing gives me the opportunity to continue their legacy and ensures that I can carry on the fight against cancer in their memory. Though they are no longer with me, my mother and grandmother left me with priceless and invaluable gifts that I will always hold dear to me: the knowledge to utilize preventative care and screening to give me the best chance at a long and healthy life, the power to find other women affected by cancer to support each other, and the courage to hold my head high until my very last breath, whenever that may be, just as they did.
Finding Thrivacious has been a blessing that I never expected to receive, and I am so honored and privileged to be part of a network of amazing, beautiful, and strong women that will support me throughout my own journey in preventative cancer screening.
May their memory be a blessing to us all.
Dr. Frida Beatriz Pesotchinski Zipkin, Ph.D.
2/11/1956 – 17/5/2018
Dora Ber Pesotchinski
12/10/1927 – 30/4/2018