This is an article topic
that is a little personal for me, and one that I wouldn't have
thought of just a few months ago. However, I think it is an
important subject to address.
This summer, my mother-in-law
discovered some bleeding "down below" if you know
what I mean. From what I came to understand at that time was
that this could be a common issue for
aging women, caused by Uterine
Fibroids - which "are non cancerous growths of the
uterus that often appear during your childbearing years"
according to the Mayo Clinic's definition. However, elderly
women can get them as well, and is not uncommon for them.
We were thankful for this initial
diagnosis - any time one hears the word "non-cancerous"
the stress and anxiety goes down significantly. Her doctors,
however, as part of the routine procedure in dealing with fibroids,
sent a sample off to the lab for further inspection. At this
time, my mother-in-law, who is now 80 years old, simply wanted
to take care of it and move on with life.
To look at her, she looks as
fit and as healthy as a horse (to use the old expression). She
takes wonderful care of herself - she exercises, does yoga,
eats extremely well (she even makes wheatgrass juice frequently,
and grows the wheatgrass in her windowsill). She flies out to
see our family, and her grandson a few times a year. Keeping
up with her and her energy is a challenge even for me sometimes
- and I am 39 year old, and in great shape (I run 6.5 miles
most days - I think mom-in-law does that kind of mileage just
buzzing around the house during breakfast some days!). She also
still works full-time at a company she's been with for over
30 years (although now, as you'll understand in a moment, we
think it's time for her to quit)!
The point is, we expected her
to live into her late 90's, and it wouldn't have surprised us
if she made it past 100. We are still holding out hope for this.
So, when the diagnosis of Uterine
Cancer (or Endometrial
cancer) came in, we were all taken aback quite a bit - especially
my mother-in-law. However, at this time, around mid-summer 2010,
it was diagnosed at stage 1 - which is about the best thing
you can hear when it comes to being told you have cancer. At
that time, according to her doctors, it was localized to her
uterus, and the prognosis was good.
My wife had discussions with
her mom about what the treatment would be, according to her
physician - which was basically to have a hysterectomy (removing
the uterus) - and all would most likely be fine and dandy from
there. On further research of my own, I learned that this is
a common procedure that many women have after middle age, and
requires only a few days in the hospital - if that.
when I heard that the doctors planned on doing it in a month,
that is when my brow furrowed a bit. I mean, my understanding
of cancer is that if you get a diagnosis, whatever it may be
- the clock is ticking - you don't want to give it a chance
to spread. "Early detection is key" is a phrase I
have heard many times about this awful disease. Well, if detection
is key, wouldn't the procedure, or removal of the cancer **quickly**
be paramount to the cure?
I asked around - my brother-in-law
is a stage 4 cancer survivor, and he told me that the doctors
probably had no concern of it spreading further, or they would
have gotten her in there earlier. Still, I wasn't comfortable
with this. If it were me, I would be on the front porch of the
hospital causing a stink if they told me they were waiting a
month. Cancer is a life or death issue, and to me, it doesn't
matter what stage it is in. I've heard plenty of stories of
missed diagnoses and people advancing several stages within
a month's time - usually, because the cancer gets into the lymph
I trusted this game plan, and
so did mom. She was actually relieved that it would not be for
another month - that gave her time to get some other personal
things done, like getting her car taken care of, errands, etc.
To me, this was probably a subconscious attempt by her to put
the cancer out of her mind.
Irene, as she is called, is very
in tune with the "energies" of the universe - and
that bad thoughts can help to propagate bad health - so her
attempt to keep it out of her mind was her efforts to prevent
the cancer from spreading. She is very knowledgeable with holistic
approaches, and is somewhat leery of conventional medicine.
Irene went into surgery the following
month, and while they were there, they took out 6 lymph nodes,
as well as her uterus - all of which went off for further biopsies
and testing. We were thrilled that this was done, and that she
could focus on healing and getting on with her life....and we
could with ours.
This was a short-lived period
of relief. She received a visit at home from her doctor several
days later, while she was healing, and got the news that her
cancer had gone to stage 3. Five of the six lymph nodes had
cancer, so the probability that it has spread elsewhere in her
body is high. The uterus was completely overridden with cancer
and tumors. The cancer has been labeled as 'extremely rare'
and 'very aggressive.'
Thankfully, my wife was with
Irene during this time.
What has been gnawing at me this
whole time is that it seems to me, as a person observing all
of this from afar, that there has been no sense of urgency with
her doctors. They delayed the surgery for a month to apparently
accommodate the schedule of another doctor who they wanted to
have present during the operation. It is my belief that during
this month, the cancer was possibly given more of a chance to
spread. It is possible, in all fairness - that she was a stage
3 all along, and that the doctors didn't realize it until the
biopsy, but nonetheless, to me, any extra day that a diagnosed
cancer is allowed to live in your body, especially the body
of an 80 year old woman who weighs 95 pounds, is a day too long.
Furthermore, once this Stage
3 diagnosis was realized, the doctors scheduled her to begin
radiation therapy "next month." Again, why are we
waiting a month? I know that she needs time to heal from the
surgery, but given the nature of her diagnosis, isn't this a
little much. I believe she is already beginning the battle for
her life, and that if too much time goes by, it will be too
late for her - the cancer will have too strong of a foothold.
My frustration with all
of this has been, naturally, with what I perceived as some "dragging
of the feet" by her medical team. However, some
of the frustration is with Irene - in that she has not been
assertive with her doctors. The very first question I would
have asked would have been "Why are we waiting a month"
on both counts. I would have been pressing them to do the surgery
sooner, and if they weren't able to comply, I would have looked
for alternatives and second opinions. I have learned by talking
with several other "seniors" that they perceive that
some doctors treat elderly patients a little differently at
times. It is uncomfortable for me to say this, but after hearing
some other stories, I believe that in some cases, doctors may
look at seriously or gravely ill seniors as experiencing a health
condition that is to be expected with old age, and that perhaps
it is just the natural progression or consequence of aging...which
trumps any sense of urgency.
imperative for seniors to get assertive...to ask the tough questions...and
to be a pain in the rear so that their questions get answered
- and to put a little fire under the seat of their doctors if
they feel like they are being misled or being treated as anything
less than a high priority.
It is also so important, if possible,
to have a trusted friend or family member go with you to the
doctor - as a second set of ears, and a second voice. I think
doctors "perk up" a little bit if they know that there
is an extended family interest in the well-being of their patient.
I'd like to see my mother-in-law
attend my son's high school graduation in 10 years. A few months
ago, this wasn't even a question for me - and now, I'm not so
sure. Right now, it's day to day.
I always try to write articles
that I think are relevant to assisted living and seniors. This
whole experience has forced my wife and myself to ask some tough
questions that we hadn't considered before. Irene is now 80
years old, and starting to have some significant health problems.
If she decides to go forward with radiation, or chemo - or -
if she decides to do nothing, which is a possibility, will she
be able to live alone any more? She's been in the same house
for something like 40 years, and she does have a high degree
of pride, and dignity, not to mention a fierce sense of independence.
She won't consider an assisted living facility without strong
resistance, which is where we ask ourselves how assertive we
need to be with her? We don't live closeby, and can't care for
her 24x7 for an extended period of time. We've offered to her
to move to our state and live with us, but she wouldn't consider
it. I can understand that her life, and her roots are all in
her town, and cutting those would be to remove much of her identity.
But, at some point, the reality will be that she will need help,
and if she wants to stay in her town, she will most certainly
have to consider an assisted living facility. I've already looked,
and there are many near where she lives. By considering an assisted
living residence, she'll be able to continue attending her church,
maintain her long-established friendships and retain her sense
of identity with the place where she has essentially spent her
We're all pulling for her,
and we dearly love her. It's time to take the gloves off.
- by the staff at Assisted