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Self-Diagnosis column: Why we fear the 'C' word

By JR Ortega
May 24, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
Updated May 27, 2012 at 12:27 a.m.


I'm a true mama's boy - so calling Mom or having Mom call me right after work is not only expected, but an innate habit.

Most people have no idea, but my Mom has been living with several diseases ever since I was 13; so most of our talk is about how she's feeling or how her many doctors' appointments went.

She has Raynaud's, a severe circulation disorder; Scleroderma, a tightening of the skin and internal organs and osteoporosis. Those are only a few - she's only 48.

This fact considered, I've always been somewhat ready for the possibility of my Mom passing away earlier than most others my age lose their parents. But what she said on my drive home almost two weeks ago made a ball form in my throat and sparked a graveness in my voice.

"Good news and bad news," she said nonchalantly. (My Mom is so used to these polar opposites).

"Your aunt was saying I shouldn't tell you, but I tell you everything," she said, as I pulled behind a line of cars in a drive-thru.

"What is it?" I asked. (Also like her, used to good and bad news).

"Well, they found some lesions in my rib area ..."

This is when I trailed off. My Mom has been a smoker for years and knows very well the consequences of being a heavy smoker.

" ... it could be cancer, but who really knows," I heard her end the sentence.

I'm very much like my Mom, I don't become easily emotional, and I play everything off "cool," so I say the first thing that pops into my mind.

"Oh."

You'd think the word "cancer" would be what really threw me for a loop, but the worst was yet to come.

"I don't think I want to find out or do anything about it," she said.

My mind again trails off.

I've covered so many health-related stories in my three years at the Advocate - cancer survivors and those with terminal cancer are definitely at the top of that list.

I'm always sure to give the men, women and children I feature in those stories a voice. But this time it was different, this time it really hit close to home.

I thought back to several people I've talked to who decided against not having chemotherapy or radiation treatments. I always understood from an outsider standpoint how difficult a decision this must be not only for the person making it, but for the family supporting it.

But again, this news hit another level of realism for me.

It's sad to say, but I fully supported my Mom's decision. For almost 15 years, she has been living a life she never foresaw herself living. While her friends and those her age continue to relish in their 40s, she's living the life of someone almost twice that age.

The diseases she already has have definitely not been kind to her and something like cancer is the absolute last straw.

She continues to fight every day, and I must say, she's very strong; yet the idea of knowing you could have cancer is frightening.

"What's the point?" she asked me as I suddenly snapped back to reality.

I explained to her all I have learned through my reporting, and said I loved her and understood any decision she would make.

This has perhaps been one of the hardest things I had to do - accepting that my Mom is ultimately saying, "it's time."

In the end, my Mom decided to have the testing needed to find out what was wrong.

These past two weeks have taken a mental toll on my body, and I've kept all this under wraps. Still, everything I did, came back to that dreaded "C" word.

Every phone call with Mom was appreciated and suddenly it felt like everyone was talking about their own moms' vitality.

So now I have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news: my Mom's results came back showing she does not have cancer, instead it's tiny fractures from some trauma during a fall she had a while back.

The bad news: not everyone is so lucky.

I know this experience has definitely opened my eyes even more, and it will help provide that much more clarity and power in future stories.

I have finally realized just how frightening the word "cancer" is. I have an even larger respect (as if that's even possible) for those fighting hard.

It's amazing how long two weeks can feel when you're waiting for someone to hand down your fate.

J.R. Ortega is the features editor and health reporter at the Victoria Advocate. He can be reached at 361-580-6504 or emailed at jrortega@vicad.com.

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