My mother’s cancer journey influences my work in palliative care.
I walk the halls as a member of the inter-professional health care team at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. When I have the privilege to see patients in the palliative care unit, I often go into Room 206, the room where my mother died, to care for those in their final weeks and days. I gently knock and enter this room, introducing myself and explaining my role as a physiotherapist.
Spending time in these familiar halls, I reflect on my Mum’s 59 rich years of life. On Saturday mornings, she would come home from the gym with her hands full of grocery bags and call upstairs in her Scottish-English accent, “Milky coffee, anyone?” She often created this simple weekend treat for us by stirring up steamed milk and instant coffee. After unloading the groceries onto the counter and into the fridge, she would put together a lunch for her family, almost always accompanied with baby carrots and other cut-up vegetables on the side. She would seldom ask for help.
In the afternoons, Mum would set the dining room table and prepare a meal for the weekly game of “guess who’s coming to dinner?” Our dinners were often diverse gatherings of folks from church and the neighbourhood.
This was my mother Diana, and we called her Mama Bear: she loved us and others deeply. She threw themed parties for friends’ birthdays, prayed in her comfy rocking chair by the family room window, led Bible studies at church, and dropped off meals to struggling friends.
After her late diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer, Mum slowly began to lose energy. She could not move as easily, think as clearly, or serve others in the ways God had gifted her. This newly enfeebled woman was also my mother Diana, Mama Bear. But she was also different.
As a physiotherapist working in palliative care, I help patients to move more easily and do the things they would like to do while in hospital for the time that remains. For many, it is important to spend their time sitting up in a wheelchair on the patio with family and loved ones. When this is their desire, I place my hands on my patient’s body and help them to sit at the edge of the bed. One leg at a time, upper body, then hips. We stand together with the walker and transfer to the wheelchair. All the motion is difficult and takes effort, but it makes visits with family possible—sometimes for the last time.
Although Mum never liked to talk of cancer as a “battle,” it stole from her, as it steals from my patients today, movements most take for granted. One day, I watched my mother try to make a call on the home phone, unable to coordinate her fingers to dial her friend’s number. She slammed the phone down on the receiver, staring at her shaky, swollen hands. Her brain sent the proper messages to her muscles, but her muscles were not able to carry out the task. I would later learn of this new Diana’s constant prayer:
Lord, please let me remember all that I have rather than all I have lost.
Growing up, Mum regularly told us to “keep it in perspective.” She kept this line in mind, too, throughout the emotional turbulence of her cancer journey. She regularly journaled her thoughts of gratitude, often commenting aloud how thankful she was for each new day.
As she approached the end, Mum lay peacefully in her Room 206 hospital bed, unable to move her body with ease. The day before her death, she clasped her hands on top of her distended belly and mustered up a weak, but profound goodbye. She struggled to impart wisdom to her daughters before her leaving.
“Girls,” she began.
A few years later, I found myself caring for a patient who reminded me of Mum. She was transferred to 16P, the palliative care unit. There would be no further medical treatment, only symptom management to ensure comfort, ease and peace. My patient, also a mum, had attended all of our stem cell transplant group exercise classes with joyful energy and enthusiasm, had ambulated around the unit with her IV pole the recommended three to five times per day, had eaten healthy meals, and had participated actively in her self-care. Often she greeted the other patients and members of the health care team cheerfully and with a positive attitude. She was the “life” of our group classes, and it did not make sense how life could evaporate so quickly.
I entered her room to say goodbye after I had signed a message in her visitors’ book. “Mum” gently told me to sit down, to stay for a chat. Because Christmas was approaching, she had a small Christmas tree in her room and had asked all her visitors to place an ornament on it, creating a visual image of all the support she had received throughout her journey. As she lay there propped up in her bed, I chose an ornament to place on the tree. As I did, I said a prayer for my patient.
Goodbye, I said quietly. I will miss you.
I walked to the patient lounge around the corner to see her family, the same room my own family had cried in during our Mum’s final days. Tears welling in my eyes, I shared what I wished I had known at the time around my Mum’s passing—
That the road ahead would not be easy or smooth; that we would need to be kind to ourselves; that we should seek emotional support from the hospital services.
That we couldn’t forget to spend time honouring and remembering Mum.
Text: Sarah Currie
Photography: Jill Goodman