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Stories from the Family

The Sun Shines Through
(by Steven Lopresti)

I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer in late July 2009 after a long eight-month battle. When she was diagnosed, she was only given one to five months to live. I was with her from beginning to end and I share our story and my experience in the hope that it will help others going through a similar situation.

Thinking back, I can still remember the heart-wrenching sense of dread I felt upon hearing the news:

"Cancer? I don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it... How could this have happened? And to my own mother, of all people?"

Vivian with her daughter, Steven's sister Stephanie

It was late November 2008. I quit my job, finished my semester in college and from then on spent my time taking care of her. The news had clearly overwhelmed her. She became depressed and seemed resigned to her fate. Before, the relationship I shared with my mother was not as close as I would have liked it to have been, but from then on we were inseparable and there were no secrets between us.

Like many, I had often heard of cancer but did not know what it really was. I scoured books and the web for all that I could find on the disease. While her cancer was very advanced, the more I read, the more I was convinced that we would beat it. I shared my findings with her as they were discovered, and soon saw that she had developed hope and a will to fight.

December was a particularly hard month. She grew weaker, ate less and lost more weight by the day. The pain in her abdomen always worsened and no medication would completely relieve it. By the end of the month, she was nearly bedridden. I still can’t believe how quickly her health had degenerated; I was unaware that such a condition was even possible. She was scheduled for chemotherapy, but not till January due to the winter holidays. I remember this time being extremely frustrating for us, as health care was very slow and professional counsel was not always readily available.

By January, she was no longer eating or drinking and could no longer endure the ever growing pain in her abdomen, so we had her admitted to hospital. Even that was a challenge, as we were told upon arrival that no beds were available. My mother was dehydrated, starved, completely exhausted and severely depressed. She had reached rock-bottom and was in no condition to return home. Luckily, by the end of the day, a bed was available. I remember thinking that had she not been admitted on that day, a Friday, she would not have survived the weekend and would have died in terrible agony.

Since her diagnosis, this was the first time she was properly taken care of - and it showed. A suitable combination of medication was quickly found to control her symptoms, and with time she began eating again and growing stronger. I lived by her side, sleeping on the floor at night. I helped her eat, go to the washroom and kept her spirits up. It was the least I could do to make her life less difficult.

It was at this time that I was introduced to meditation by a dear friend and began attending weekly sessions. What I was going through was extremely difficult and I was drained both physically and emotionally. Meditation brought true peace and happiness to my life and helped me to help my mother further. After a session, I would feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the coming week. I would also regularly talk of my sessions with her. Although she was not very spiritually-inclined, once she was in better shape I saw that she began making attempts at applying its core concept, that of living in the now, the present, to her way of life.

Her chemotherapy sessions began shortly after and within a month we knew that the treatment was working. More of her strength had returned, she had an appetite and her medication was decreased. We began going for short walks and by mid-March she could handle stairs. Her doctor was amazed at her remission. She had some very good days during this period and we spent much of them together. By April, we began spending time outside the hospital and she had many occasions to enjoy the beautiful spring weather.

She was sent home shortly after, but her abdominal pain returned after only one week. Her chemotherapy was soon discontinued as it was no longer working. Her health got progressively worse, and with time, her symptoms became once again out of control. She was readmitted to hospital.

By July, I knew that she was nearing the end and with time I found myself able to accept it. The last week was the hardest. Even though she was extremely weak, we had a chance to share a few last precious moments and heart-felt dialogues. Her only concern was for my sister and me. Her only request was that we take care of each other, that we remain safe and that we be happy. She repeated this to me many times till her last day. The night of July 19th was her last and I spent it sitting on her bed by her side, my arm around her shoulders, my head against hers. While she seemed unconscious, I felt that she could hear me and I whispered in her ear many a time that she needn’t worry, that we would be safe, that we would be happy. I told her again and again that she could go whenever she felt ready, that she needn’t stay for anyone, that everything would be fine. She stopped breathing shortly after midnight and I knew that she had truly left in peace.

After she had passed away, I wondered if it would have made a difference had she lost hope from the start and died early instead of having chosen to fight for those many long months. I resolved that it would have. Yes, she had suffered, greatly at times, and yes, the whole ordeal had required much of her. But the time we had shared together was priceless, for both of us, and had given us a chance to grow closer than we had ever thought possible. In a way, I feel that we were blessed. What’s more, only during her last week did she reveal to me that she was ready to die. Before that, I feel that I would not have been able to help her go the way that I did.

I come out of this experience with peace of mind and no regrets. I am truly happy that my dear mother’s last months were filled with love and joy, and that in the end she left this world in peace. She will never be forgotten; her spirit will live on in me and through my actions forever.

In loving memory of Vivian Saba
Oct. 25, 1952 - July 20, 2009

Hoping for a Miracle, Ready for Death
(By Dianne Stone)

We agreed to be completely open to trusting life and whatever it would bring, whether the miracle we hoped for, or death.

When my beloved husband, Lenny, at age 50, was unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we entered into the most challenging time of our lives. As he used to say, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the best of times because with the possibility of Lenny dying, every moment together, every day together, became so precious. We agreed to be completely open to trusting life and whatever it would bring, whether the miracle we hoped for, or death.

I had read a book many years earlier, called “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. In this book, he talked about the opportunity for healing for the person facing death, as well as the friends and family around, whether the body lived or died. And so, we used this as our model for this time, looking for healing, both physical, but more importantly, spiritual, for him as well as spiritual healing for our family.

As we went through the rounds of hospital stays, chemo, test after test, crisis after crisis, this was our lifeline. During the course of his illness and eventual death, which was about two months, many of our friends as well as both of us, were transformed in opening to this time in such a profound and trusting way.

For myself now, when I am asked about the most important lesson I learned, I answer, that somehow, in facing the biggest loss of my life, the dearest person in my life, the greatest lesson was that I learned to trust life! That somehow it’s okay that Lenny died. It’s part of the universal plan, it’s a good plan, and I trust the plan and the planner. What freedom!

With gratitude to my dearest Lenny, my greatest teacher and deepest love!

Cancer patients and their loved ones are invited to write to us about their views, thoughts and feelings. We will include as many letters, articles and stories as is possible in these web pages.

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