real life

"Her personality changed." The truth about losing my mum to cancer in my final year of school.

Going through school with a parent who was terminally ill was a nightmare that I had to face. When my mum died, I was a month away from my year 12 final exams. I don’t remember a lot from the time surrounding her death, as my coping mechanism was to put my head in a book and study.

I was grieving while I was so close to the most important exams of my academic career. The teachers and students at school were so understanding but the look of pity in their eyes was a constant reminder of what had happened.

From the earliest I can remember. my mum was sick. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was five years old. My memories from that time are not very clear, but it was filled with lots of trips to the hospital and many nights spent at my grandparents’ house. After going through chemotherapy and a mastectomy, fortunately she was cancer free and our lives were on track to being normal.

That was until 2012 when she was diagnosed again, this time with metastatic breast cancer in the bones and liver, which is much worse as it was terminal. My parents had also divorced in those years, so it was just me and mum living together.

I remember the day my world changed, as I overheard a phone conversation with a doctor in which mum said she had cancer again. I questioned her about it but she told me it was only so she could get an appointment quicker. Weeks later mum and I were at a counselling session, as I was going through some anxiety issues of my own, and she turned to me with tears in her eyes and told me the cancer was back and that it was more aggressive.

It was so hard coming to terms with the fact that I was going to have to eventually lose my mother, while dealing with my own mental health problems.

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I always felt guilty whenever I thought about myself too much. How could my problems compare to my mum who had to face the thought of dying some day? The only way I could with it all was to bury my head in the sand and pretend that everything was normal. This is something I will always regret. I convinced myself that nothing was wrong and to keep going on with life as normal.

In 2014, my mum was given two weeks to live. The cancer had taken over her liver, and her skin began to turn yellow. It was terrifying as I had to treat every moment I saw her as if it was the last. I had wasted precious time we could have spent together by pretending that she didn’t have cancer. She was so brave in those two weeks, and I remember her telling me that she couldn’t be dying because she didn’t feel like she was.

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She was right, a new drug that doctors had tried only a few weeks before had finally started to work and it was a miracle. For the next three years I regret not spending more time with her. I was getting older, which meant I was beginning to go out more. I had a boyfriend and my school load increased. I am so in awe of how amazing and strong my mum stayed. She continued with her life and tried to do as many things as possible.

In 2017, my final year of high school and the final year mum got to be a part of, was where everything started to go on an increasingly fast downward spiral. The cancer had infiltrated her brain and was changing her personality. I don’t remember the last time I had a normal conversation with the old her. I wish I did, even if it was something trivial.

Throughout our time together we would fight frequently, as mother and daughter do. However, it started to become one-sided, her yelling at me and taking her frustrations out on me. I started to not be able to talk to her about anything as everything I said would be taken the wrong way or would cause a disagreement. There was also trouble with medication, she would have massive highs and lows and was diagnosed with depression. She would constantly tell me that she was going to die and that I would regret not being nicer to her.

I still feel so much guilt for not helping around the house more but my mind and body were at full capacity. Family members and friends were on a rotation to stay at the house to help take care of mum, and although this was vital I felt like I had no privacy. Therefore, high school was my sanctuary. It was so important that I had somewhere to go, that didn’t involve cancer talk and was a consistent routine that I could stick to. I truly believe if I didn’t have school to go to, I would have fallen into a deep hole, as studying was my way of escaping from the reality that I had to live in.

coping with death of parent
Samantha's mother. Image: Supplied.
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I remember one day, I was in my bedroom studying and I heard a massive scream coming from my mum's bedroom. She was erratically crying in a ball on the floor, in between breaths exclaiming that she didn’t want to live anymore, saying it was all too much to cope with. I stood there in shock, not being able to say anything because what can you say to someone who is going to die? I knew at this point that I would not have my mum for much longer. I am now a big believer in euthanasia because if mum was able to die on her own terms, she would not have had to go through so much.

On August 3, my 18th birthday, she was taken to hospital. At the time I didn't know it, but she would never return home. I began to live with my dad, and this was a very big change as I had never stayed with him permanently before and this was hard to get used to. Mum went to a cancer centre, which I did not like visiting because it was very overwhelming and due to my anxiety problem I did not like going into hospitals. As I was in the final stages of my schooling and did not have my licence, I could not visit mum as much as I wanted to and she was eventually moved to a hospice.

She was sleeping most of the day and did not make any sense when she was awake. She eventually drifted into a coma. It sounds horrific saying this, but in the final two weeks of her life I just wanted her to die quicker. If you have not been in the situation of having a someone close to you so near death, it wouldn’t make sense. The waiting for her to die and not knowing when it would be was agony. I was constantly asking when she was going to pass, what day it would be but doctors do not have answers to that. Eventually she drifted away and I was numb.

I am proud to say that I completed my exams, and came out with a result I was not expecting and got into the course I wanted. Looking back now I don’t think I would have gotten a better score if my mum was not ill, as it forced me to put my head down.  It is still hard to come to terms with the fact that I will never see my mum again, or that I can’t ask her questions about life. One of the things she used to say was that she wished she would have been able to grow old, which baffled me because who wants to get old. Now I understand, as having something so natural as growing old being taken away from you is something no one should have to deal with. I believe that she is somewhere watching over me and I hope she knows how much love I have for her in my heart.

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