what cancer feels like, part 3

Man, these are intense. Sorry if they’re a downer, but I’m doing my best to make it real and truthful. Some of those moments include humor, most don’t. Please leave me any feedback you think is relevant too.

Now we’re in August. My mom’s birthday is in August, as is my fiance’s and Papa’s. It’s also the month of Grammy and Papa’s anniversary. This particular August, they would be celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary. We weren’t going to do anything too exciting, as Grammy would be starting her full brain radiation soon.

Let me fill you in what I’ve learned about full brain radiation since the procedures.
It’s very risky. It’s pretty dangerous. The side effects can be permanent and devastating. The older you are, the more dangerous the procedure is. The long-term effects can take months to show up, and they may come out of nowhere.

My grandparents are beautiful. I don’t say this as a biased granddaughter, I say this as fact. I have countless old photos of them, living in Panama during the 50s when my grandfather was stationed there. They were young, fit, and happy. I love hearing stories of warm markets where merchants would leave the eggs out, parties til dawn with old friends, and white cotton dresses made of the lightest linen in Central America.

My grammy was a fashionista. They often were pretty poor, but she always looked ethereal. As she got older, Papa began to make a little more money, and she created an investment in fashion (as did he), but always in outlet malls and thrift stores. She still found the Chanel and Ralph Lauren pieces, though. When I was younger, we would spend hours at that gigantic outlet mall that bordered Illinois and Wisconsin, and she always found the most exquisite pieces. I wanted to be her.

In late August/early September, Grammy stopped shopping. She stopped putting on her beautiful and exotic jewelry. She only wore makeup when she felt it was necessary. She stopped trying.
I became afraid. I knew this was the start of a change.

After the brain radiation, which was only 10 days of treatment, Grammy lost what was left of the fuzz that had grown back on her head. Her lack of eating had taken its toll, and she had lost about 20 pounds since February. Her skin looked ashen and pale all the time. We would be out to lunch, and I would catch her staring at an empty chair across the way. Her eyes were…lost. She looked lost. Her memory was slowly slipping. She would start sentences but not know how to finish them. She’d walk into a room and forget what she went in there for. These on their own are not the worst memory lapses, but combined with what we all knew could happen…we kept our guard up.

In September, Grammy was hospitalized twice. Once, she had become weak and was unable to walk or speak coherently. After running tests, the doctors determined she had a magnesium deficiency and needed to be put on a strict water intake of 40 ounces per day, minimum. Bottom line: she was very dehydrated because she forgot to drink water. Mom was diligent about monitoring her water intake, including buying her “baby” water bottles to keep around the house and on her person. But, mom didn’t live with her. Papa did everything he could too; it just wasn’t enough. She lied and said she was drinking water when she wasn’t. Two weeks later, she was back in the ER, this time with a sodium deficiency. Essentially it was the same reason; she was dehydrated, malnourished, confused, and weak.

I remember around this time I started buying massive bottles of Ice Mountain and drinking when I wasn’t thirsty. I also started losing sleep, which is hard to handle when you’re also full time in grad school.
I don’t honestly know why I picked education as my master’s degree. I remember the summer of 2011, not knowing what I was going to do, as I’d decided not to pursue a master’s in writing and was working a miserable job at a hotel downtown. I was on my Facebook, perusing friends’ photos, when I came across one of my high school teacher’s albums full of happy and silly high school students, and I thought, “I never wanted to be a teacher, why does this look so appealing? Why does this fit?” I started grad school in September 2011 and fell in love with education. I can’t wait to graduate in November.

Anyway, anyone who’s ever been in grad school knows it’s fucking hard. It’s not like college, where you can party and go to class hungover in Pink Floyd pajamas. I never drank or went to school in Pink Floyd pajamas; Hello Kitty fuzzy pajama bottoms only. It’s papers every single week, student observations, field reports, dozens of lesson plans, and moments of frustration so great, I’ve used swear words I’d never used before this.
So worrying constantly about my three closest family members going crazy (literally and figuratively) was pretty challenging.

I quit seeing my therapist “Sarah.” My moments of calm with her had morphed into frustrating binges of silence, and I could no longer appreciate her spiritual take on death. She didn’t know what Grammy was going through, and she didn’t know me.  This is the type of attitude that causes rifts in therapeutic benefits, but at this point, I was too angry to care. I vowed to find a new therapist when the time was right, but for the moment, I had Mozart, red wine, and a big bathtub. It was far cheaper too, as my fabulous grad school insurance hardly covers me unless I’m hit by a tank.

September ended poorly. Grammy was home but failing. We could all see it, but we didn’t really talk about it. I don’t think it was denial, I think it was a method of protection that people use when they’re in crisis. You’ve seen it or experienced it, I’m sure. Something so catastrophic is happening around you that you can’t really comprehend it; so you shut down, just a little, to survive. It keeps you going.

In October, we had a freeze. The weather was moving briskly from fall to late fall, which, if you live in the Midwest, you know there’s a fucking difference. The ground collected those little patches of frost in the morning that turn to flat water by noon. Mom was busy taking Grammy to a doctor’s appointment about every four days. Grammy’s attitude was still amazing, though.


Pretty much.

Mom would take Grammy wherever she needed to go, but she was noticing that Grammy’s posture and poise was off. As I mentioned, the woman has had dozens of surgeries, and has always had issues with her back, but something was off this time. She held her side when she got in and out of the car, and her balance was unreliable. There were no negatives coming from her doctors though, so none of us thought anything of it. It was par for the course, still. Her memory was now officially compromised, but it was all short term stuff, like what she did the day before. Mom and I entered the mode of “as long as she always knows who we are, she’s fine!” But, she was slower, more easily confused. Her handwriting was becoming a little illegible. Walking was definitely becoming more difficult.

I refused to look up anything on the internet. I did that when she was first diagnosed with cancer and it made matters so much worse. It’s goddamn cliche, but statistics don’t matter, because cancer is different for every single person. She could be doing remarkably well where someone else had already died at this point in treatment, and what good would that knowledge do me? I kept most things quiet.

The freeze, though. It made the ground hard to walk on. It made navigating the driveway difficult. Grammy and Papa have a beautiful circular driveway with two entrances and a big garage that can fit Papa’s “James Bond” cars. Papa has always been a car nut, it suits him well. I can remember being a kid in his custom candy apple Chevy Caprice, driving from their Wisconsin lake house to the nearby drive-in soda shop. I felt like I was part of a different era, and I loved it. I think that truthfully started my love affair with 1950s music. When Grammy and Papa moved into this house with the circular driveway, they built a huge garage so he could hold his cars safely.

On October 22nd, my cousin Lindsay’s birthday, Grammy and my mom came home from running errands and parked outside the garage. Mom told Grammy to wait so she could help her into the house, but Grammy either didn’t hear her or didn’t process it. She tried to walk herself and ended up slamming her head into the hood my mom’s Hundai Santa Fe and collapsing on the ground. Mom says she will always remember the sound Grammy’s head made when she hit the car. There is a pretty big dent in the hood of her car.

Grammy kept consciousness and was even laughing on the ground as they waited for the ambulance. She said she was fine and could get up on her own, to which I think my mom shouted at her to stay down, she didn’t care that the ground was cold. After running many tests, they came to the conclusion that Grammy didn’t have a concussion and she didn’t break any bones.


Yeah, this isn’t pleasant. This was about three days later, nearing Halloween (check the Halloween card on the table. Also notice the big green folder full of her medical issues, as well as just a few of her medications and their old-as-time-itself blood pressure machine.)

We figured this was the worst point for Grammy. But, still, the doctors couldn’t pinpoint anything specifically wrong with her, and we were still in survival mode.
This was the shelf before the drop.

(Part 4 to come.)



  1. Shea · February 11, 2013

    Considering most people are only goin to read one blog I can’t hesitate to say that you should add important information, like te fact that Calcium in your formative years helps prevent the development of cancer ( and that kind of stuff to help people feel like they not only feel bad but also learned something important ) – could only benefit your cause. Also, the first thing I *wanted* to know was ‘how are they now’ ..and I find myself at the beginning of a terribly long story.

    also~maybe I’m wrong about this for your blog, but taking a page fom journalism – most people only read about three paragraphs ( if that ) before they sorta get nauseated by words and start skimming or just stop entierly. When I write ginormous long ( more than five ¶ ) pieces I try to make each set of three paragaphs it’s own ‘experience’ and to a lesser extent weaving each paragraph into a ‘rollecoaster’ ..ish.like.. Ya know ‘you could read any three paragraphs’ kinda deal, ima been bloggin long time, Good Luck

    also..wheasya paypal button? Include that with ten dollar minimum on *every* blog. People can be very easy with small donations to good causes 😉 paticularly if it means they can Karmically ~never return!~ which is probably what will happen with me ( hence the blog load ) well.. I do follow you on twitter, polly check back in a year or so to see if she kicked it or not, maybe if I win that lottery..

    job hunting tomorrow, don’t ya know?

  2. Scott Bieser · February 11, 2013

    Kate, is it?
    I am responding to Neil Gaiman’s RT of your request for feedback on your blog posts regarding your grandmother’s cancer. I think I’m qualified to comment in that I recently lost my wife of 17 years to the same disease.

    Reading the three entries, I’m struck by the similarities, and the differences. As to the differences, in brief, my wife was 49, not 74; her early symptoms appeared to be a neurological problem rather than cancer so that by the time she got the right diagnosi; it was “extensive” rather than early; and we never got to the point where she’d have begun the brain radiation treatments. While we were waiting to get those set up, she suddenly developed severe cerebral vasculitis caused by the c-cells infecting her meninges, and she suffered brain-death over the course of about a week.

    As to the similarities … well, it’s that it’s the small details that tend to stand out in my memory. Likewise, it’s the small details in your remembrances that make your experience feel more “real” to me. It was the bravery and general good spirits of your Grammy and my EJ as they endured the treatments and the illness. The stress and emotional roller coaster I and our sons went through.

    I am still pretty much in mourning — I cry a little bit every day for my lost beloved. As I started reading your story I worried it would send me into a funk. But instead, it’s made me feel calmer. I’m not sure exactly why, although it might be the knowledge that my wife was not alone in going through what she went through. It’s not a curse; it’s nature.

    Please do continue this memoir, and drop me a line when you have something new up.


  3. lemonmem · February 11, 2013

    Oh Kate, what a hard time for you and your family 😦 It’s like, we all hope we’ll never have to deal with such things ourselves or with a close family member or friend, but I think cancer ends up affecting most people in some way. Thanks for sharing your experience…hopefully we can learn about and appreciate the relationships in our lives better than if we were all guaranteed to live in perfect health til 150. I’ll send good thoughts and prayers to your Grammy.

  4. misswillow1974 · February 12, 2013

    Hi Kate. I found you care of Neil Gaiman’s retweet of your blog on Twitter. I’m glad I found you. I can truly empathise with you and your family, as we lost my Grandfather and my Sister to cancer about 17 years ago. My thoughts are with you and I’m sending lots of love and positive thoughts your way. And certainly keep the blog going. You will find it very cathartic indeed.

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