For 35 years, my mother ran a nursery school out of our house in Pune. Her life was all about her students and her circle of close friends who lived in the area. She was rarely ever ill and never let a cold or a cough get in her way. But in 2012, all of this changed suddenly. She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 62.
Within months, she had to undergo breast removal surgery and was then advised chemotherapy. However, my mother was very clear that she didn’t want chemo. She had read a lot of books and material on the side effects of chemotherapy and she just didn’t want to opt for it. At this point, we went looking for several alternate therapies, but most doctors we went forced us to seek chemo as an only option. They weren’t bothered about my mother’s age or her concerns, or the fact that there might be alternatives to chemo; it was almost like a marketing scheme.
So my mother took matters into her own hands and made several diets and lifestyle changes, she cut down on refined sugars and dairy products, she took immense care of herself and kept up her post-op checkups. For three years after that, she was cancer-free. But in 2016, her cancer returned, and this time it was in her bones. Cancer had advanced quite a bit and the doctors suggested end-of-life care as the best option.
My sisters and I were devastated; we knew that if we told Mumma about cancer relapse, she would be broken. So we didn’t tell her, until the very end. Cancer was a terrifying word for her; almost meant to be kept a secret.
“My mother’s cancer taught me how short the journey from life to death is”
After the relapse, her health kept getting worse, and this was when we shifted her to a palliative care center in Pune. We had to move her there because taking care of her at home had become impossible. Slowly, her bones became extremely brittle and she could barely walk by herself. These were the days when I would sit next to her for hours and talk. We would talk about things we’d never talked about before. Our house, her students, life; no topics were off the table.
Eight months after the relapse, she passed away. It took me time to come to terms with her death. It took me time to accept that my mother, a staunch Tamilian Brahmin woman married to a Maharashtrian, a teacher for 35 years, a mother to three daughters, was now gone.
During the last few months of her life, I realized how short the journey from life to death is and that how no one should take life for granted. Taking care of a loved one who has cancer is hard, but it is harder on the ones going through it all. So all I would say that as a caregiver, one should create as much of a positive environment as possible, there will be days when this is not possible but try your best. Also, listen to everything that the person has to say. Communication is everything during such trying times; even if this means sitting silently next to your loved one.
Neeti Walavalkar now lives in Pune in her maternal home. She takes care of her aged father and reaches out to others who are caregivers to cancer patients.