When There’s a Death In The Family

On March 2, 2014, my fifty-five year old cousin died. She would have turned fifty-six in May.  She was only five and half years older than I am, and my closest cousin on that side of the family since we reconnected as adults.  While she lived about 80 miles away, we stayed in contact by e-mail, phone calls, and the yearly family Swedish Christmas Eve party.  I’m still sort of numb, though her death didn’t come out of the blue.  She had a particularly evil form of cancer.  But it’s hard to really accept that she’s gone. She’s the first in our generation of cousins to die, who lived past infancy or early childhood; there were some tragic deaths of infants and children in the family, including my cousin’s older brother at age seven, when she was eleven months old .   If anybody could have beaten this, it would have been her.  For a while, she seemed to be handling chemo relatively well (it’s NEVER easy).  The complications  from the cancer and chemo were another story.  My brain isn’t working that well in writing this, so I apologize ahead of time if it’s scattered.  It’s disjointed, and it’s really, really long…  (for my cousin, the textbook editor… always succinct and grammatically proper… oy).

Our grandmothers were sisters who came to the US via Ellis Island from Nordmaling, Sweden (WAY up on the northeast coastal area, Lapland, reindeer, midnight sun) in the 1920s. They came over on the ship called the ‘Drottningholm’, leaving from Göteborg, Sweden when they were in their late teens and early 20s.  There were 13 siblings in all, and most of them came here, settling in the same general area in the Midwest, in and around Chicago. Nobody spoke English before they got here. They left everything they knew to start a new life .  Eventually, many moved all over the country as their families grew, and jobs took them away from the Chicago area.  Our parents are first cousins (at 81 and 89 years old)- both still very much alive and running around.

When we were kids, that five and a half year difference in age was huge, and I was in the ‘little kids’ group of cousins when we got together for family parties.  The big  yearly family  party was the Swedish Christmas Eve  shindig , and it was THE family party to look forward to  (crazy, crazy fun party !!). There is still a smaller version, that is equally anticipated and keeps that Swedish heritage alive, which is such a treasure.  Whenever possible, family came from all over to attend that party.  I’ve blogged about that elsewhere 🙂   I adored my cousin. She was ‘cool’, and always nice to us younger kids.  I was also the recipient of some of her outgrown toys when I was a little kid, which I still remember (really nice doll buggy, and a whole set of ‘Little Kiddles’ – little 3″ tall child dolls who had their own house that doubled as a carrying case !!).  We lived in the same city for many years, which not all of the cousins did, so I’d see her more often than many of the others of that generation. It was still only a few times a year, yet it was often enough to really like her and enjoy the times I did see her ( there were two of the boy cousins closer to my age that I saw regularly throughout the time I lived at home, before moving to Texas after nursing school in late 1985).  This cousin was someone I looked up to as a kid, and was so glad to reconnect with her when I moved back to my childhood hometown in late 2002.  I moved back a few weeks before Christmas Eve, so we saw each other  for the first time in many years at the now smaller Swedish family party.  We quickly became as much friends as  we are cousins.

When this all started last June 2013 (thereabouts), she called me a few times about some troubling symptoms, and her intense feeling of being discounted by the first gastroenterologist she saw (I later suggested she send her first full colostomy bag to his office).   I’ve been an RN since 1985, and she had some questions, and wanted to know what I thought about this guy saying  she was fine except for a minor problem (for which she was given some topical medication), and did that sounded ‘right’. Though disabled, I still keep my license, and need the 29 years of knowledge and experience to deal with my own medical issues- and am always more than willing to be a sounding board or ‘medical translator’ for family and friends.  This is a cousin who called me in the past for some of her family and  own questions when medical issues came up, and I knew that she knew her own ‘normal’ very well; she needed to listen to her ‘gut, in my opinion.  She’d been in France a few  weeks earlier, and had some vague symptoms there, and they were getting worse.   I told her that if she felt that something wasn’t being addressed, she might contact her primary doctor for a referral to another specialist.  And she did.  She was able to take a scheduled ‘fun’ trip to California after the initial specialist appointment, before seeing the new specialist.  While I was glad she was able to travel at the time, I’m even more thankful now that she was able to have two great vacations before her 9 months of hell began. 

She had an appointment for additional testing, but before she got there had a severe episode of rectal bleeding while at work, and was immediately driven to the ER at a nearby hospital.  She got the preliminary diagnosis (from a tactless ER doc) that she had a rectal mass.  She had known something wasn’t right.  She was admitted for more tests, and long story short, she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine colon cancer after surgery and the full biopsy, which surrounded her rectum about %75 the way around it (basically like a fist around the end of her colon), and needed a permanent colostomy.  Surgery  took a little over week to actually get done, and in the meantime, she was in intense, constant pain.  She had a moderately ‘normal’ recovery from the surgery, and had to get used to the colostomy, and some decent pain management.  From there, she spent some time in a rehab facility to regain her strength before going home. I remember there was more going on (I still have some brain fog post-chemo), but she was looking forward to getting on with treatment. At that time, the plan was to treat it, and her plan was to do what was needed to  recover, and keep the part of the tumor that couldn’t’ be removed in check.

Now, I get mixed up as to what happened when, but over the next 9 months (give or take a week or two), she had non-stop hospitalizations and  complications with chemo and the cancer.   They were unable to completely remove the tumor because of how it was positioned and the nearby blood vessels, so lymph nodes in that area and additional tumors (spread from the main one) in her liver began to be an issue, growing and causing pressure.  She was given  various types of chemo (including a clinical trial ‘cocktail’ of already approved meds used for a different type of cancer, that was being looked at for neuroendocrine tumors), and I really felt that if anybody would be in the ‘survivor’ percentages, it would be her.  She was in otherwise  good health, and she was young, especially for this type of cancer.  But, neuroendocrine tumors are absolute bastards in the tumor world.  When I was looking up information when she was first diagnosed, I was horrified at the statistics… but I still thought that she had a chance.  It’s never over until it’s over. (Valerie Harper was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given three months to live; that was fifteen months ago, and she has said “Don’t go to your funeral until you’re dead”, and did ‘Dancing With The Stars’.  I love that. 🙂  )  And those statistics never differentiate between ages, other health issues, or actual cause of death. If someone dies crossing the street on the way to their appointment, they are included in the deaths from whatever disease is being studied and reported.  SO, someone who is 85 years old, with multiple chronic diseases, who is hit by a bus going to the store is still included in the cancer death rate because they died during some particular study.  So statistics are iffy- they are a reference point worth considering, but not the be-all, end-all ‘rules’ of survival/death.  I was looking at the possibility that a 55 year old female in otherwise good health could be in the small percentage of survivors- why NOT her?.  I couldn’t see it any other way… but I knew it would be a hard battle.

In the months she was being actively treated, she had a kidney stent (she called me about some nagging and increasing flank pain- and she was right; something was wrong– there was pressure on her ureter from the mass of lymph nodes, cutting off the flow to the bladder from the kidney- so her kidney couldn’t empty out, causing a lot of pressure and pain), low potassium and magnesium, constant vomiting (which can be a cause AND symptom of low potassium- ‘nice’ vicious cycle there),  an infection that I’m foggy about,  multiple fractures in her sacrum, blood clots in her legs, fluid around her lungs, a LOT of pain, multiple adjustments in her medications, a port placed (for giving chemo and drawing blood to avoid multiple IV sticks), medications to deal with medications, a new kidney stent, a lump in her neck from lymph nodes-which caused arm pain from the lump pressing on nerves, and on and on. And during it all, she was mentally going on as if she was sure she would be fine in the end.

I have over 700 e-mails between the two of us from the time just before she was diagnosed until January 2014, when I noticed things were changing because of the change in communication.  She wasn’t answering e-mails or posting as much on the support site for friends and family.  That was different. Something wasn’t right.  I didn’t call her much.  I knew she needed rest (and she had friends who were visiting her, which was SO wonderful), and if she didn’t answer e-mails, she wasn’t online, or up to ‘talking’/communicating. I understood that, and we had  an  arrangement that if she wanted to call, she could- and if she were at a facility, I’d call her back on the room phone so she didn’t have to use her cellphone minutes.  If she was home, she called from her landline.  I waited to hear what was going on from the site set up for family and friends as well.

I saw her at Christmas, and she was in ‘new’ pain (I was SO glad to finally SEE her after all of the  e-mails and phone calls !).  That would turn out to be the fractures in her sacrum, which she had to have glued back together.  She had her bones glued. Back. Together.    She never got a break during the entire 9 months.  There was always something else she had to deal with and/or get treated.    I cried a lot, as I knew that each time she called with something ‘not right’, it meant that the cancer was not giving up to the chemo.  In February, it became official.  The clinical trial meds weren’t working (and those aren’t given when there are ‘known’ medications that work) so that was already a sign that things weren’t going well at all… but someone has to make it, right?  There was nothing left to do. It was a matter of time, and not that much of it.

She called me in mid-February after being discharged from another rehab facility to help her get stronger after the hospitalization for blood clots, fluid around her lungs, neck nodes,  and getting her bones glued.  She  told me the doctors had no more  options for additional treatment. I’d already been told that her prognosis wasn’t good (from dad, via uncle, then e-mailing her mom, who called me back) , but I asked her if she’d been given any time frame and she said she didn’t want to think about time limits. She also said she didn’t feel like she was dying.  I’d learned a long time ago that patients do have some feeling of when their body is not going to recover.  My answer was  “then don’t” !  (Real clinical and technical, I know…).  I didn’t say anything about the time prognosis I’d talked about with her mom.  She didn’t need me to have some sort of mental countdown going on… so I blew that off as best I could.   She said she wanted to check out some alternative healing options and knew of a Chinese medicine doctor  nearby, and I told her she had nothing to lose, and who knows?  Something might help her at least feel better.  So much of Western medicine comes from natural sources (plants, animals, etc).  Why not?  I encouraged her to do whatever she felt was right for her.  She didn’t have anything to lose, and only something to gain.   She wasn’t ever able to find alternatives… she ended up on Hospice shortly after that phone call.

That was the last conversation we had about getting well.  She called me  a few more times, and each time she sounded weaker and more tired, sometimes a little foggy.  She wanted to know about how hospice decides when to do things, and when not to, and if palliative care was better (she wanted to be at home, so that pretty much answered that).  The last time we talked was within a few days of her death, and by then she sounded almost deflated and she told me she was tired of ‘all of it’. She was still denying any feeling of  ‘actively dying’, yet also sort of saying she was ready for it to be done.  She also asked me why I was able to get well (from the leukemia I had diagnosed in late March 2010, and had 19 months of daily chemo to treat, including 50 infusions of arsenic trioxide).  It wasn’t in an angry way, or in any way ‘upset’ with me  for surviving… it was almost a childlike tone, just wanting to understand the incomprehensible. I really didn’t have an answer, except that she got a meaner cancer than I did.    I told her I had just gotten extremely lucky to have been diagnosed while there was time to treat it.  Many people with what I had are diagnosed at autopsy; I know of two people, one a child, who were gone within two days of diagnosis.  I also told her to do this next phase of her life (the last days) however she needed to do them.  I guess it was how we said good-bye.  I didn’t know how soon ‘it’ would be, until I got word from the support site posts that she was sleeping most of the time, and rarely woke up…then I read she had a brief period of awareness and drank some juice.  That is common very close to ‘the end’, and I knew any calls I got from family would be to tell me she had died.   And that’s what happened.

Cancer is a mean, nasty disease, and there are various forms of cruelty that it can throw out to torment people.  She got one of the worst I’ve ever seen in the 20+ years I was working in various areas of nursing, and with other friends and family (my mom had breast cancer, second breast with suspicious cells, lung cancer, and brain cancer and all of the treatments and surgeries with those… and then dementia from the brain radiation, and lived for another 17 years cancer free).  My cousin never got a moment’s reprieve from agonizing pain, or if the pain was doing better something else would go wrong.  It was SO unfair.  It’s never ‘fair’, but she went through more in nine months than most people go through in a lifetime.  It’s not really fair to compare people’s diseases , since whoever is going through something like cancer is feeling pretty scared, and having their own journey with their disease, but from an objective standpoint with nurse eyes, she had it really, really bad.

One thing that she was so consistent with (even before the cancer)… she always knew when something wasn’t right.  She knew when there was something brewing or just outright wrong .  She knew her body- even with all of the ‘new normals’ she had to get used to- and she got things taken care of when she knew things weren’t right.  Everyone needs to do that.  She’d call me and ask what something might mean… and if she should call her doctor then, go to the ER, or wait until office hours (depending on what was going on).  Sometimes she needed an explanation about something, and sometimes I encouraged her to call one of her doctors (we’d figure out which one to start with since she ended up with several).  Other times, I encouraged her to get checked out as soon as she could.

I will miss her so much.  I already do.  And yet I’m glad she isn’t being tormented by that nasty tumor and it’s offshoots and chaos any longer.  She went through all of this with such grace and dignity, and never gave up the idea that she was going to be OK, until the very end.  And then, she went peacefully in her sleep with her mother and housemate at her side.   I’m not going to be able to go to her Life Celebration because of my own medical issues (and the logistics of getting there with various equipment).  I’m upset that I can’t be there.  I know she’d understand, since she knew I couldn’t attend but a couple of hours of the Christmas parties, after dinner was over.  I’m just really sad.  I wish I could hear more about her from the people who are going to be there.   I’d like to be there for her mom, and her  brothers (who have had to say goodbye to two children/siblings now) and their families.  So instead, I write to clear my own head, and in some very small way, pay tribute to my cousin.  There are a lot of things I’ve thought about during this past nine months, and how my cousin made my life better just by being herself.  As adults, we had a great relationship, and I found her to be   a kind, compassionate woman, with a great sense of humor and an amazing work ethic.  She was never judgmental.  She looked for the good in everything we ever discussed.  She was loyal, and able to help me out with her own perspective on a difficult situation. She knew how to have a conversation without injecting drama.  She let me be there for her, when I often feel like I’m not useful for a whole lot anymore.  I just wish it had been for something that left her here (I’ve never had a ‘nurse call’  be for anything good 😦  ).  It’s always hard to say goodbye to someone, and someone in my generation in the family is just plain scary.   Especially someone I really cared about, not just because we’re related, but because she was a person who added so much good simply by being.

I will love you always, K.P.A.

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