health

'My mum had a tumour. How did I miss all the signs?'

I was at work the day I received the call. That’s odd, I thought, Mum doesn’t usually ring me here. Well, she doesn’t unless something is wrong.

When Mum started to speak, her words were jumbled and rushed but three clearly stood out. Cancer, tumours and brain. And she was crying. We aren’t a family who cries. Yet there I was crying too, at work, while also trying to remain calm. What a shitty way to hear your mother has cancer. But really, is there a better way to find out?

Bern and her mum. Image supplied.

Hindsight is 20/20. I’ve begun to really despise that phrase.

My biggest mistake in the lead-up to my mother's diagnosis was to ignore major changes in her behaviour. My defence, if I have one, is that at 76 years of age Mum lived alone and had always been quite the "Mrs Mangel" or busybody of her street. She knew the goings on of each and every neighbour within a 500m radius. So when she started to say that people were outside her window at night and throwing rocks on her roof, we were concerned, but not alarmed. My brother, who is a policeman, filed a police report, which revealed nothing.

Next, Mum started to get impatient with my children for little no reason, and told me a 'big white fluffy cat' was jumping on her security screens at night and "making a hell of a racket". I put her change in behaviour down to a number of things: age, the fact that my children were getting older and less obliging, a cat really could be terrorising her as she described; I honestly just thought it was her age and an understandable growing sense of impatience.

Bern and her Mum Betty. Image supplied.

Mum was babysitting my 18-month-old son, Jack, for a day a week when I found her blood pressure and cholesterol medication within easy reach of his little hands. I'm ashamed to say my first instinct wasn’t to ask her if she was finding it difficult looking after Jack, instead I asked the childcare centre if they had more availability. Suffering from macular degeneration, her eyesight was down to basically half an eye and Jack is a mini tornado on legs. It seemed like a good time to take him off her hands.

Mum adored looking after Jack and begged me not to put him in childcare, and said that looking after him was the highlight of her week. So, on the day she babysat him, I scoped out the house for pills, boiling hot drinks and pins and humbly requested that the universe return him to me in one piece.

But the phone call changed all that.

The weekend before that despairing call, I received a text from my brother to ask if I had spoken to Mum, and “was her hand any better”. Her hand not being okay in the first place was news to me. Apparently, she couldn't use her right hand to sign her signature. Mum had failed to mention this to me, despite seeing me not 24 hours before.

Fearing she’d had a stroke I drove around to her house but she was quick to assure me it was nothing and was good as gold. “I have my regular appointment with my doctor on Tuesday, I’ll bring it up with him then”. Why didn’t I do something?

Also, why I didn’t put together her erratic behaviour of some weeks before. I had taken Mum to do her grocery shopping and she had stood in the middle of the produce section of the supermarket and without warning or warrant, barked at me “How much are the avocados?” I asked an employee and told Mum. She spun around on the spot, stopped and asked me how much the avocados were. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t cotton on. Jack was screaming, I was tired and Mum seemed to be playing silly buggers in the middle of Woolworths.

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Hindsight. 20/20 and all that.

She made the phone call from a payphone outside the doctor’s office. She had been to three different doctors that day. Three times, alone. She would have sat in those doctor's rooms and waited on what she must have known wouldn’t be great news. But she refused to have us with her because, “I don’t want you having time off work for nothing”. You have no idea how much I wish I had defied her that day to be with her while she received news about "nothing".

On her own she was told she had at two separate brain tumours. I can't even imagine receiving that kind of news, alone.

Or trying to process that kind of information without someone's hand to squeeze yours. Apparently, she told me through her sobs, they were secondary. I was so naïve at the time I didn’t even know what a secondary tumour was.

She sounded so small.

The doctors believe it had been residing within her body for many months, probably years.

Image via. iStock

From diagnosis to death Mum lived for three months. In the middle of the spinning vortex, it felt like so much longer.

On reflection I asked myself if there really were people outside her window harassing her as she repeatedly kept telling us? Was there really a big white fluffy cat jumping on her security screens at night? Were hooligans actually throwing rocks on her roof?

I don’t know.

More than likely, no. Rather, they were all symptoms of her brain tumour.

I do know now that if someone I love starts telling me something that is out of the ordinary or starts acting differently I won’t shy away from asking some hard questions.

Hindsight may be 20/20 but I think I’m better off putting on my glasses and seeing what’s right there in front of me.

For more articles like this, read these:

New city, new life, new MoPed. Life on life after politics and cancer.

The machine that can detect the extent of breast cancer in just 30 minutes.

How songs of resilience can help cancer patients. 

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