Lesson number three – It’s not like the movies.
By that, I mean that the way that death and dying is depicted in the media, TV and films is far from reality (from what I’ve seen, anyway).
A bit of background on my Mum’s diagnosis – she had breast cancer, six rounds of chemo and then surgery followed by radiotherapy – all seemed positive. One month after her radiotherapy had finished, she was in serious pain. Scans and blood tests soon revealed her cancer had metastasised to her bones, which had caused 17 fractures in her spine, and was on course to get through her whole body.
Metastatic cancer – also known as stage 4 or terminal – is when a tumour has spread from its original location in the body to other places. The diagnosis of metastatic cancer is tightly associated with death, and this has influenced understanding of cancer in TV shows or films. One can see tearful scenes where doctors advise patients with metastatic cancer to get their affairs in order – meaning their will, last wishes, funeral plans etc… Yet you never see these events depicted for the patient. For example, Mum’s signature on her will is so scraggly and strained, was that through the emotional strain of knowing about her inevitable death or the physical capabilities of her rapidly deteriorating body? We didn’t have any money set aside for funeral costs…Mum technically paid for her own funeral from the pension payout we received from her employer (ironic?).
In these dramatic depictions, you might watch those characters with stage 4 cancer go on personal journeys, as though their diagnosis is a race against time to address unfinished business or tick off their bucket list. My Mum had her heart set on going to Graceland all her life. Her diagnosis wasn’t the rocket up her arse that made her do it, she could never been physically able to make that journey. Yet characters on TV and in films go on road trips, boats, flights, moving with ease (and not a lot of assistance), and they can sleep in whatever position. Mum couldn’t even see her best friend, because at the time her best friend had two young children who constantly were bringing sniffles home from school, and Mum just could not take the risk of getting more unwell. Mum also couldn’t move by herself to get comfortable. There were multiple occasions that I would have to help Mum’s partner with barrel rolling, bending limbs, he at one end and me at the other, trying to manoeuvre Mum into some position that would ease pressure from somewhere because her disintegrating bones and muscles just couldn’t do it anymore.
As the tumours coursed their way through Mum’s frail frame, they attacked everything. They destroyed Mum’s immune system, the functions of her organs, her blood flow. She lost her appetite, progressively declining nutrition and hydration. One of the signs doctors say when someone is very close to death is that they will not eat or drink. Their body suppresses the hunger and thirst urges in a bid to concentrate on every other living function. I can’t forget the image of Mum’s body in this state. Her body was like a lumpy skeleton with a sheet draped over it. Her skin was constantly pale and cold, the only signs of life in it being her visible pulse.
The carers that came in were becoming less able to wash and change her without it being excruciating. They settled on washing her face, brushing her hair, and holding her hand for a little while. Mum completely lost the control of her bowels, so her incontinence underwear was needing to be changed an awful lot. Her teeth couldn’t be brushed at fear of effectively drowning her, because she lacked the ability to spit something out. She smelt bad.
And then she died. The morning of the day that she died, I remember being so fucking terrified because I just knew she wouldn’t make it through that day. I told a friend who’d been through the same experience that my Mum’s face wasn’t her face anymore. That she’d been in exactly the same position for over 24 hours now, and her breathing had drastically changed. I remember watching her chest near enough collapse with every breath. Her skin was cold yet clammy and losing colour with every moment that passed. Watching some TV or film characters’ deaths from a terminal illness to me is almost insulting. Mum did not slip away peacefully whilst perfectly propped up in bed with each loved one holding a hand. The process of my Mum dying was bleak and difficult and honestly, traumatising. I will never forget the image of death upon my Mum.