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DR LIZ O'RIORDAN: Magnum ice creams, chip butties and Twitter fans are helping my Mum face cancer

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In March, my mother Isobel noticed a small swelling on the back of her right upper arm. It wasn’t painful, maybe a little tender. I took a look and decided she probably pulled a muscle while gardening

About a month later, she noticed a lump on the front of her arm — a palm-sized swelling on her biceps. Again, we assumed it was a sprain. Her GP referred her to a shoulder outpatient clinic.

On June 8, while Mom was waiting to be seen, she broke her arm. She was opening a cafe door when she heard and felt an almighty fissure.

A week later, after X-rays and scans, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.

As a former breast cancer surgeon who has had the disease twice, perhaps I should have seen it coming. But the truth, like most people, is not me. Nobody did.

I was devastated that she had to go through what I had gone through. And what she’s dealing with is much more serious: While 150 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every day in the UK, only 158 are diagnosed with osteosarcoma every year. It’s that rare.

Four weeks after we heard the news, on July 13, Mom had her right arm amputated. The cancer had spread through most of the bone in her upper arm, and getting rid of it presented her with the lowest risk of it coming back.

However, it was too late. After surgery, we were told it had already spread to her lungs. It is now incurable.

BLACK HUMOR: Liz O'Riordan (right) with mom Isobel (left) in her 'one-armed bandit' T-shirt

BLACK HUMOR: Liz O’Riordan (right) with mom Isobel (left) in her ‘one-armed bandit’ T-shirt

She and my father live in the same village as I do, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and I’ve been a general dog hangman, taking everyone to appointments and helping.

Last month she started chemotherapy at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge. This can save her more time if she responds well. We won’t know until we try.

What surprised me most about this ordeal is how tough it has all been. As a cancer surgeon—I’m retired because my treatment made it physically impossible to continue—I had done little to prepare.

And as a patient, I just had to go through the motions. You show up for scheduled treatments and appointments. You tolerate the side effects because you have to.

But watching someone you love in pain or need is much worse. You just want to take it away. I feel so guilty that I can’t.

I feel helpless when I hear her scream in pain. And I feel guilty if I help too much – treating her like an invalid because she has cancer, instead of letting her ask me for help when she needs it.

I had assumed that I would never have to deal with the pain of losing my mother, because even though I had learned everything a few years ago, I expected that I would die first. I also gain insight into what my death might look like if my cancer comes back.

After my diagnosis, I decided to put my anger, confusion and frustration into words: I started blogging about my experiences and found a new community of women with breast cancer who share stories and advice with honesty and warmth.

Today I am dedicated to raising awareness and encouraging discussion about these most difficult topics. Talking helps. We must not let fear stop us from facing the deeply personal, often inconvenient truths about cancer. It’s something that one in two of us will develop.

About 460 people die of cancer every day in the UK. Millions more live with it. Even if you “survive,” the treatment can change your body and your life forever.

That’s why it’s important to know not only how to live well with the disease, but also how best to support someone you love to do the same. I’m proud of how far I’ve come since those terrifying first few months of my own cancer journey. But I was back to square one with mom.

Here are some of the many things I wish I had known at the start of it all…

HUMOR HELPS… BUT SOME THINGS ARE NOT FUNNY

Black humor is incredibly common in people with cancer. Mom had been on Twitter since 2019, proudly proclaiming herself “Liz O’Riordan’s Mom” ​​on the social media site, defending my campaign. But ever since she started posting about her own diagnosis, she’s gained a huge, supportive new fan club.

The day before her amputation, she told her nearly 4,000 followers she was on the brink of becoming a “one-armed bandit,” described herself as the “reckless chemo grandma,” and remained cheerful and positive.

She’s now wearing a “one-armed bandit” T-shirt I found online. We’ve laughed so much since then and it’s been a huge release of tension.

But every now and then I go overboard.

Mom tells me how I once joked that I would have her engagement ring when she was gone. She just went quiet. It was quite a shock and she wasn’t ready to face that. We talked about it later and I apologized. I must remember that I had a head start and my prognosis was better than hers.

Mom is not ready to go there yet and I am learning to follow her lead. But if you can laugh, it means it’s not all doom and gloom all the time.

ENJOY LIFE’S LITTLE FUN

When we came back from the hospital after being diagnosed, Mom couldn’t cook, so she and Dad ate some chips and a Magnum ice cream. Of course she tweeted about it. Her followers loved it and one even started a hashtag – #BeMoreIsobel – in tribute to her indomitable attitude.

It is so important to cherish those little pleasures when the future is uncertain.

Mom loves gardening and planned to fill her borders with plants before cancer came. So when we nursed her broken arm, we filled them with colorful bedding plants. She says seeing things grow makes her feel brighter and brings joy to her life.

And she doesn’t give up on things that make her happy, even if it’s harder. She puts on lipstick and earrings, baked scones and a Mary Berry banana bread. She jokes that the hardest part is getting the dough out of the bowl…

When we came back from the hospital after being diagnosed, Mom couldn't cook, so she and Dad ate some chips and a Magnum ice cream.

When we came back from the hospital after being diagnosed, Mom couldn't cook, so she and Dad ate some chips and a Magnum ice cream.

When we came back from the hospital after being diagnosed, Mom couldn’t cook, so she and Dad ate some chips and a Magnum ice cream.

Of course she tweeted about it.  Her followers loved it and one even started a hashtag - #BeMoreIsobel - in tribute to her indomitable attitude

Of course she tweeted about it.  Her followers loved it and one even started a hashtag - #BeMoreIsobel - in tribute to her indomitable attitude

Of course she tweeted about it. Her followers loved it and one even started a hashtag – #BeMoreIsobel – in tribute to her indomitable attitude

YOU CAN HELP…BUT NOT PRESS

When I got chemo, I told Mom and Dad not to come over. I didn’t want them to see me in pain. But I regretted that later. Sometimes I had so little energy that I would have loved Mom to help me get comfortable in bed, rub my forehead, or get me a drink.

It is that practical help that is most useful. When Mommy’s arm was broken, we helped her shower, dress and cut up the food.

People too embarrassed to ask for help can offer to fill their freezer with easy meals, mow their lawn, change the sheets, or walk their dog. But take your cues from your loved one.

We know Mom appreciates everyone’s concern, but she doesn’t want people to worry.

DON’T BE IMPREADED AT THE END

Nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact of the loss of a loved one. But you can take practical steps to make the aftermath less difficult.

This was something I recently addressed in my podcast ‘Don’t Ignore The Elephant’ – where I have honest conversations with guests about topics we don’t normally discuss.

Actress Emma Thompson’s husband, Greg Wise, came to talk about the loss of his sister to breast cancer. He said how important it was to have a “death box.”

It doesn’t have to be a box, but somewhere with internet and bank passwords, washing machine instructions, copies of wills, funeral wishes and power of attorney. It’s awkward to bring up, but it’s important. Mom and I are currently figuring this out.

A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE CAN BE DANGEROUS

When Mom was diagnosed, I knew nothing about osteosarcoma and went straight to the internet against my better judgement.

Two-thirds of patients survive for five years, but that drops to 10 to 30 percent once the disease has spread. I knew it was just numbers. No one can tell you if you will be one of the lucky ones. But it still drove me crazy.

Whether or not you respond to chemo is key. And we cannot predict that. Mom has decided to be guided by doctors. She says, “I’m sure there will come a time when I want to know more. They might say that nothing works. I look at it day by day.’

If you must watch, get information from the major cancer organizations and ignore the influencers on TikTok.

LOVERS CAN RETRIEVE WHAT YOU HIDE

My desperate Googling led me to assume that Mother wouldn’t make it to Christmas. I tried to stay positive, but she saw through me.

“Within a day of my diagnosis, I knew that Liz thought I was pretty much dead and buried,” she says. “I hated the idea of ​​my family talking about me behind my back.”

Hurting Mom was the last thing I wanted to do. It is a difficult path to navigate. Everyone—patients and family—will fear the worst but feel they need to put on a brave face and be relentlessly positive.

Make sure you have someone with whom you can unload. It will help you worry less, so being with your loved ones will help you support them better.

FIND A WAY TO TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING

Mama met a fellow patient who called her cancer “Ethel.” She did this so that it would be easier for friends to bring it up and not feel so gloomy, “How is Ethel?” they would ask. She would say to them, “She’s acting a little weird” or “Ethel isn’t worrying us too much today.”

I know that as a patient, you can feel a tremendous sense of guilt for putting so much stress on the people you love—and wanting to shut it down when you need to ask for help.

You don’t have to name your cancer, but do find a way to talk about it. If you are afraid or in pain, you need to vent. Caregivers also need to be able to listen.

I went into autopilot when my mom was diagnosed – canceling things to get her to appointments, staying busy so I don’t have to deal with my feelings. Once Mother recovered from her surgery, the walls collapsed. Depression hit hard and I didn’t see it coming.

I didn’t want to tell Mom I was having a hard time, but she had to know. Together, as best we can, we’ll get through this.

Isobel will be featured in Dr O’Riordan’s podcast, Don’t Ignore The Elephant, on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify on October 10. For information on bone cancers, visit bcrt.org.uk.