My mom, Rebecca Evans, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987.
She found a lump in her breast while doing a self exam. I remember the phone call from my dad so clearly. She had breast cancer in both breasts and in almost all of her lymph nodes. Her doctor told her to get her affairs in order and prepare for the worst and then to get ready for the fight to save her life.
Now if you knew my mom you knew she wasn’t going to go without a fight. She went through chemo therapy, radiation, a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery and months of being sick and exhausted. All the while she continued to teach high school English and Spanish and keep up with my brother who was 6 at the time. She was really worried that she wouldn’t be able to see him grow up.
I remember the changes, the loss of hair, the scars she hated, the lack of energy and the struggle to do the things she enjoyed doing. She fought every step of the way and during the process helped other women who were going through the same thing.
She beat the odds and made it through. She was cancer free for over 14 years, considered cured. During my last pregnancy she became ill. She was having problems with stomach pain and had been going to the doctor on and off for a few months. She was becoming very distended in her abdomen and was losing a lot of weight. Finally realizing it was more than stomach issues she went to have some tests done. The first thought was it might be ovarian cancer and they wanted to perform exploratory surgery to make sure.
I remember when the surgeon came out to talk to us and I could tell by the expression on his face it wasn’t good. He told us that it wasn’t ovarian cancer that the breast cancer was back and that it had adhered to the lining of her internal organs. The cancer cells were causing her organs to seep and that she was filled with fluid. So it was time to fight again.
During my mom’s first battle with cancer, the treatment was extremely difficult and almost killed her. She made it very clear she was not going through that again. It was all about quality this time around not quantity. Thankfully, cancer treatments had improved dramatically and her oncologist was able to narrow down treatments that would fight her cancer without the severe side effects (for the most part).
She won the battle again!
Her cancer went into remission and she was in good health. Over the next 7 years the cancer would come back 3 more times and each time she would battle and beat the cancer into remission while never letting it get in the way of living her life to the fullest, always the optimist.
The cancer cells continued to seep and filled her lungs and abdomen with fluid. They were able to drain the fluid off of her abdomen and give her some relief. We knew the cancer was more active because the fluid was coming back faster each time. Her lungs were filling up too and in February 2009 she had a procedure to drain the fluid in hopes of improving her breathing. It was an extremely difficult procedure and lucky for her, this was when the ice storm hit Paducah. Looking back, this was the beginning of the end.
The news came that the chemo therapy she was on was no longer working and the side effects it was causing were not worth continuing the treatment. Her oncologist told her that he had done all he could do and her best hope was to try and get into a clinical trial.
She handled that news the same way she had all the other times she was told cancer had taken over her life. She would do what she could to fight as long as her quality of life was maintained.
During the summer of 2009 she came to Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center for testing in hopes of finding a clinical trial that she would qualify for. She had lost a considerable amount of weight but was still in fairly good health. She would tell the doctors “nothing is wrong with me, I just have cancer”. After 3 months she received a call that there was a trial she might be able to participate in. She went through a couple of days of testing and then the waiting began. The next time we went in the doctor told us that due to the damage the radiation did to her thyroid years ago, she didn’t qualify. They also told us there were not any other trials for her to consider but she was on a waiting list and they would call if one became available.
I began to panic at this point but not Mom. I called the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center and made an appointment to see if they had any clinical trials available. At this point my mom’s health was starting to fail. She was having difficulty breathing and was losing her mobility. She had no energy and had lost her appetite. By the time a trial had been identified for her in December she was no longer healthy enough to participate in it.
Dr. Burress, her oncologist at Sarah Cannon, suggested a treatment that might slow the cancer down and allow her the time to get strong enough to be included in the trial. He gave us some hope and a plan to move forward and started it immediately. We checked her in Centennial Medical Center the week before Christmas and hoped for the best.
She fought a hard fight but the cancer just wouldn’t let go.
On Christmas Eve morning, I made the difficult decision to bring my mother to my home to spend her last hours surrounded by her family. I sat my children down at the dining room table and told them that “Binky” wasn’t going to make it through the day and that I wanted to bring her home. I made sure they understood that she would die here and if that was something that they would be okay with. Each sweet child (ages 8 thru 15) said it would be very sad but they wanted her here too.
So with the Doctor’s help we made the arrangements for her to be transported by ambulance with the help of hospice when we arrived. Once she was settled, she opened her eyes for the first time in over 24 hours. I told her where she was and all the grandchildren came in to talk to her. Each one handled it differently but my sweet Tanner was overwhelmed with emotion. He held her hand and cried while he told her how much he loved her. She was able to slowly say in a muffled voice “I love you too” Those were the last words my mom spoke.
We took turns sitting by her bed and holding her hand. I continued to prepare for Christmas morning and tried to finish up wrapping the gifts that I had hidden all over the house. It was just about seven o’clock and my brother called my name in a panic. The hospice night nurse had just arrived and I hurried downstairs. Mom was gone … wow I knew it was coming but nothing prepares you for that moment. I had to call my dad down and tell him she had passed and then we had to tell the children.
I can’t tell you how blessed we were. It was the most difficult moment of my life and one of the most precious. As we started handling the business end of everything, we had the support of a wonderful nurse who promised to stay with us until everything was taken care of and she was so comforting and sympathetic, I don’t know what we would have done without her.
The first call was to Morrow Funeral Chapel back home in Kentucky. They took care of contacting a local funeral home to come and pick up my mom until they could get her the next day. Once that was arranged, we waited for the hospice RN to come by and pronounce her dead. The men from Williamson Memorial funeral home arrived and were so thoughtful and caring. They assured us they would take very good care of her as long as she was with them. It was so hard to watch them take her.
Okay now what…
I took a deep breath and told everyone to get their Christmas PJs on and head to the living room. The annual Christmas Eve tradition of watching Christmas Vacation wasn’t going to be missed. Mom wouldn’t have had it any other way. We decided to wait to start calling family and friends until after we opened our gifts on Christmas morning. We wanted that night just to ourselves.
The next few days were a blur. We were so blessed to be surrounded by family and friends that took care of everything and helped us every step of the way. During all of this, we were shown over and over again the impact my mom had made in so many lives.
I hope to continue that impact with The Pink Gala and I would love for you to join me.