The Cancer Diaries: How to Save a Life

My son has been very upset about the passing of Jennette. He saw her on Christmas Day, frail, a whisper of a human being with her head taped up like a mummy. He saw her, but he couldn't see her.

By that time, the oral cancer had enveloped her like a thermal blanket. Even I, the person who had spent the most time with her, could only see a glimmer of my friend peeking out of her rheumy eyes.

Stef was a little freaked, encountering a person who looked vaguely like Jennette who was being consumed by an alien. His normal little auntie blew us off on Christmas Day; she couldn't talk much, didn't want to talk much.

"I don't understand it, mum," he told me after a few drinks on his birthday. "I couldn't live like that. If I was sick like that I'd want to end it all."

She had had that discussion with her friend Gudrun who was the only one to raise the subject when not in front of medical professionals. Jennette had been given the speech by the friendly palliative care doctor. If she wanted to take the cure, she could do it.

But she didn't want to. She didn't want to die, she wanted to live, even if it meant dying in excruciating pain with half her face eaten away, unable to eat, or even drink.

She still wanted to live.

I admire Jennette for it, but I don't understand it.

I was doing the paperwork today, and came across her medication invoice which listed 23 drugs. And this was an old invoice. Drugs for the pain, drugs for constipation, others for diarrhea, anti-psychotics, drugs that fought the thrush in her mouth, ENT magic mouth wash. And Lyrica, that damned Lyrica that she had been taking for years, along with an inhaler in the smoking days, pills for high blood pressure and others for stomach ailments.

For at least a decade, she had lived on a cornucopia of pills. She took so many pills she needed a cheat sheet. And she seemed weirdly proud of her Rx bill. It was as if she'd earned the right to be drug addled.

To magnify their effect, she always washed them down with a snoot full of vodka.

And she still kept going.

What was she looking for? What were her hopes and dreams?

"What bucket list?" she asked me, when she got the news that she was terminal.

For years, I tried to get her help. I told the doctors over and over in ERs about the drinking, which might have contributed to the falling and the breaking. I saw them write notes on her file. When I finally got through to a social worker, she made a referral to a psychiatrist but the shrink said she wouldn't take Jennette unless she stopped drinking -- which is a ridiculous thing to say to an addict.

It's a get out of jail free card.

I wanted to talk to her doctor about all the drugs she was taking in addition to the snootful of vodka, but he didn't seem to care. He kept piling on the pills, the inhalers, the suspensions while ignoring her vagina and her breasts. The next doctor was much better. She ordered tests for everything: the colon, the heart, the bones, and fixed her cataracts. But who was keeping an eye on her chemistry?

I guess you get to a certain age and the docs just give up on you. I've read that if you are a lifelong drinker, you might as well keep drinking because by the time you reach your dotage, your number is up anyway. I guess that's why Jennette continued to live in the pharmacy kingdom. Heck, she worked for the government for 35 years. She had kick ass benefits.

The 23 drugs I mentioned? Only two weren't covered by her government drug plan.

One was the "natural medicine" for constipation. The other was for mouth wash.

I am sad that she couldn't see the world in a clear-eyed fashion when she wasn't in the hospital, like Humpty Dumpty, getting put back together again. A broken femur, a broken hip, five bones broken on the top of her foot, a goose egg the size of a goose from a coffee table injury, fainting while paying for her computer, fainting before her cancer operation.

She was what medical professionals call a frequent flyer. In Jennette's case, she could have gotten points to fly around the world.

Nobody asked, nobody cared.

She was just a little old lady, after all, who looked the age of my grandmother.

There was no talking to her. She reported to no one but herself.

"I make my own decisions," she told me, as she neared the end. "And I don't regret a single drink or cigarette."

It makes me sad, but I, too, live in a glass house. I have my demons.

I wish I could have helped her, but I couldn't.

I tried, but I failed. In the end, all I could do was hold her cold and tiny hand.

"I'm sorry," were the last words she croaked. "I'm sorry."

Those words continue to bounce around in my brain. They wake me up at 4 a.m.

I couldn't save her. In the end, there are days I find it hard to save myself.


  1. So beautifully written Rose.Tears coming down my cheeks.
    One thing we know for sure is that she had good times while she was alive until the evil cancer took her away. But so very sad that she left this world at a very young age. R.I.P. our Angel in Heaven.


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