On March 5th, 2010, four weeks before my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, we received devastating news that my mother was in stage four of lung cancer. Our little family was broken. A strong family unit of my parents, my sister, myself, my husband, my two kids and my sister’s son were all in shock that something so irreversible could penetrate our perfect family. So we began the battle to support my mother through the fight of her life. Hours of conversation and communication became a life-line of support through the decision making process and ride of a cancer roller-coaster. Unfortunately, in May of 2012, my darling father was also diagnosed with cancer and died two weeks later. Two months later, in July of 2012, my mother lost her battle with cancer and followed my father.
The daughter of two very well educated parents, learning and development was a constant focus in our household. Even through an unbelievable journey such as cancer moments of wading through the tides was still focused on learning. So to share my parent’s journey I can best honor them by sharing how our family moved through cancer together and that was with a strong communication philosophy.
Rick Peterson and Stephen Green in their article, keys to Successful Family Functioning Communication, states that communication within the family is extremely important because it enables members to express their needs, wants and concerns to each other. Open and honest communication creates an atmosphere that allows family members to express their differences and through communication, family members are able to resolve the unavoidable problems that arise. Especially through a crisis, open and honest communication becomes imperative to resolve the inevitable cliffs of cancer, treatment, and death. Without the open and honest communication there would not have been trust developed amongst my family members. Development of trust became imperative in the cancer fight, because we were tested with unthinkable decisions that need to be made.
When we first received the devastating news and were in shock we affectively communicated by expressing our emotions without conveying specific information about how we felt. I remember driving over to my parents the day after we received the news and just cried on my mother’s lap. I said nothing about how I really was feeling but showed the emotional torment to both my parents. I remember it being a very intimate moment, which in an odd way gave my mother pause to exhale, as she shared with me later on.
My father, a psychiatrist, had laid the foundation during our formative years for our family to express our individual needs, wants, and concerns. My mother, a music professor, provided us with the creativity to represent those needs, wants, and concerns to others, in the family structure. One example of creative communication was at our weekly family dinner with all three generations present: Dad had found a cartoon with no words to accompany the strip. He presented the cartoon to each member of the family and asked us all to come up with a heading. What a wonderful time for everyone to express, subconsciously, what might be going on in their world that day. This line of creative communication was very imperative when sharing the devastating news with the children initially.
Another communication moment involved the exchange of ideas and information. One of the awful side effects of chemo is the inability to eat which unfortunately was one of the symptoms my mother suffered from greatly. I remember one weekend when my sister, father and I sat down to exchange ideas and information we had obtained to find ways to get my mother some nutrient. We were able without stress, or emotion to share information that would provide us some creative ways to provide my mother the help she needed.
One of the hardest communication moments during our cancer journey was when decisions had to be made swiftly and confidently. Unfortunately, some of those very hard decisions were placed on my lap, as the elder of two daughters. The first time was when I needed to make the decision to bring dad home from the hospital. He was going to need 24 hour care since my mother was also ill and unable to care for him. I also knew in the back of my head that my father, a physician, had already resigned himself to defeat and would be making choices accordingly. I would have to be doubly strong for my mother who would not be strong enough to handle the outcome on her own. Another time was when I had to place each parent in Hospice care. That decision was incredibly painful because family members believed strongly that this was the tipping point, signaling a final decision in each parent’s battle. I had to communicate this decision with authority and directness so that others wouldn’t waiver in their stance. Swift action was a necessity in this decision of Hospice care for the comfort of the dying parent but communicating that decision was uncomfortable for the survivors to hear.
As I put these thoughts down on paper and read them myself, I am once again struck by the incredible foundation my parents laid. I could tell those who would listen about the actual struggles, battles and strength that both parents endured during their incredible cancer fight but I know in my heart that is not how they would want their journey to be shared. I believe I do more in memory to share what an incredible family we were and how their life philosophy developed and strengthened two women in becoming strong pillars of their communities and families. Our strength continues in our children’s journeys, as they develop their incredible ability to communicate with all of those whose paths they cross.