← Issue 9

What A 17-Year-Old Needs To Know When Caring for a Cancer Patient (Who Happens to Be Her Mother)

by Camila Cal

Before You Begin: 

Know that no one can prepare you for this. There are no rules on how to wake up to your mother sniffling into her palms. Savor every breath, remain conscious of the normalcy of feeling your lungs fill up with oxygen.

She has breast cancer, she’ll say, her eyes frightened behind the swelling and smudged mascara. For many months later, every breath you take will struggle to escape, and you will forget what it’s like to breathe without fear of loss. 

What You’ll Need:

  1. A Juicer.

During her treatment, the patient will try to battle the effects of chemo using a mixture of celery, carrot, and ginger juice.

Wake up hours before school starts to press the vegetables down the chute. Do this with intention, willing the nutrients to cure. Do not be alarmed if the smell of celery lingers on the tips of your fingers. Do not be surprised when hipster juice bars repel you for the rest of your life.

  1. A Translator (sometimes located in your brain).

The patient is not a native English speaker, and in frightening situations, she forgets how to comprehend English. Do not let the patient experience doctor appointments alone. Miss school. Miss band practice. You will be the bridge between medicine and cancer, learning the art of flipping the switch from English to Spanish. You will learn to be robotic, to not fully grip the situation, because that would mean that your mother is sick and she is hearing it from your lips, you, the same being that she created inside of the body that is failing her now.

Stage 3 Breast Cancer.

Flip the switch.

Cáncer de seno en etapa très.

When you arrive home, wash out your mouth. 

  1. Popsicles

The patient has never liked sweets. Before beginning chemotherapy, the doctors all tell her that most patients bring popsicles to cool their bodies and mask the bad taste in their mouth. She doesn’t like popsicles. 

Buy them anyway. 

In the store, the unfrozen popsicles are thrown into colorful bins that advertise beaming children wearing sunglasses, laughing like there’s nothing in the world that could be wrong. You will wonder how many cancer patients have seen the same sign and hated the children for being so happy. You will hate the children for being so happy. 

The chemotherapy room is filled with rows of chairs the color of sand. There’s a constant choir of sound. Nurse shoes squeaking against the floor. Blood pressure machines hissing. The soft beeping of chemo machines.

You will watch as the clear liquid drips into her body through the port in her chest. At first, the patient will say she feels fine, but after a few minutes her face will sink into itself, like a terrifying Halloween mask. Her lips will chap and turn a ghostly shade of white. It’s time.

Grab the popsicles. Unwrap one. Place it in her hands. The patient will comply instantly and feel relief. The other patients will nod in approval. You will do this, again and again, every Wednesday. You’ll think of it as going to Survival Club. Remember, you are surviving this too. You will learn to hum along to the room’s choir because the noise means you’re all still alive, still fighting, one popsicle at a time.

  1. Hair Clippers

The shower drain will clog with strands of dead hair. Don’t be alarmed. The chemotherapy is killing the healthy cells, too. The patient loves her hair, keeps it touching her waist. But her body is letting go of it even if her mind is not. Slink into the bathroom and wiggle your finger down the drain, collecting strands in a clump. Look at yourself in the mirror, stroke your healthy curls. Wish you could give them to her. Wrap the cancer hair clump in a paper towel, throw it in the trash can. Don’t think about how much of your mother you’re disposing.

You’ll find hair everywhere, on the kitchen floor, countertops, stuck to your clothing. When the patient hands you hair clippers, act surprised. “It’s just hair,” she’ll say, yanking it out in fistfuls. Then, in your living room, shave her head. You will both cry as the remains hit the floor, covering your feet like an itchy blanket. When you’re done, hand the patient a mirror. Kiss her bald head. Tell her she looks beautiful. Mean it.

  1. Hope

The patient, your mother, cannot let the cancer define her. Hope is the tool that comforts her the most, so she will find it everywhere; in the gold Virgin of Guadalupe chain that rests over her beating heart, in the priest’s blessed hands over hers, in the friend that delivers bone broth to the doorstep. If she ever forgets this, remind her. Clasp her hands in yours, partners in prayer, reassure her, hope is right here. It’s always here. And if you ever lose it, I’ll be here to help you find it again.

She will attend every high school football game to watch your dance team perform during halftime. You’ll always see her, beaming with pride, adjusting her wig when the wind blows too hard. When you wake up late, she’ll delicately pack your lunch, never forgetting to include the napkin that reads ‘te amo.’ The dizziness, the nausea, the tightness in her chest, they won’t be enough to stop her from being your mother.

You will tap your leg in waiting rooms, apply aloe to radiation burns, learn to place a wig. And then slowly, your mother’s hair will once again reach her waist, she’ll stand beside you at graduation, donate her wigs and popsicles, move you into your college dorm, she’ll stop being your patient, and still, still, you will never forget the steady clasp of your hands, your bond of survival. Perhaps the only thing stronger than hope.

Camila Cal (she/her) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and lives in the U.S. She attends the University of Central Florida where she studies creative writing and journalism. Her experience as an immigrant and first generation student inspires her to write creative nonfiction that others may relate to. She was previously the Creative Nonfiction Editor of UCF’s literary magazine, Cypress Dome. Her work has been published in Blue Marble Review, Ghost Heart’s Literary Journal, and the Cypress Dome’s Editor’s Edition.