It’s hard to believe that as I write this personal story my mom, Corazon Mendoza, is on the other side of advanced-stage ovarian cancer. She officially got the remission stamp last month. I am respectfully aware that many survivors and caregivers may not experience the opportunity to use that word. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of cards stacked against her. The caseworker at the hospital was adamant that I understood how sick my mom was. They suggested that we consider hospice versus conventional care, while another nurse was pulling me aside into a medical supply room to tell me to “prepare for the worst.” On top of that, we later found out that my mom’s own oncologist was scrutinized by his own peers because he went forward with treating a seemingly hopeless stage-four patient. Throughout my mom’s survival and our caregiving, we never took ‘No’ as an answer: Not from Medicare, hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, or administrators. My mom was judged about upholding her will-to live and as caregivers we matched her attitude by practicing defiant hope, vigilante faith, endless support, relentless sacrifice right beside her. We can’t fail to mention Mom’s oncology team, who deserve absolute accolades and respect. As newbie caregivers we didn’t always do the right thing, but we did right by my mom. A good caregiver-rule to stand by—to give a voice first and foremost to the survivor, really witness and hear your loved one. They may be fighting for his or her life.
As a client of CanCare and as a caregiver, I felt witnessed and heard. My CanCare mentor-volunteer was actually an ovarian cancer survivor. Usually, CanCare ensures cancer patients are matched up with survivors and caregivers are matched with caregivers. I am grateful to this day for CanCare’s creativity in pairing up a volunteer survivor with a caregiver client. What I received from my mentor-volunteer was something very special. Apart from feeling witnessed, it was as if I were blanketed with an energy that was objective, yet compassionate; strong yet gentle.
Inspired, I suggested CanCare to my parents, but at that time they preferred to refrain from seeking a volunteer. While I honored their choices in this journey, I knew that I needed to reach out to someone who would understand my raw and vulnerable moments, specifically someone who could relate to me. It was a critical source of comfort and perspective for me to find someone who battled through the rigorous process of cancer. While a CanCare mentor’s job is not one of a therapist, my mentor volunteer’s witnessing and validation of my process—along with her willingness to meet me for coffee—was therapeutic and healing for me. One particular act of kindness I appreciated were handwritten cards she would send me through regular mail. These cards offered encouragement and were personally signed by her, in gorgeous handwriting. Through all her interactions with me, even when I was operating on very limited capacity, I could feel that my mentor-volunteer was reminding me I was doing a good job as a caregiver. She reinforced that I “was enough;” which, as a caregiver, can greatly help in remembering that you are not alone. From Mom’s diagnosis on January 22, 2016 to her official remission declaration on April 26, 2017, our family has countless memories, both deeply positive and challenging. A few of the more ‘human’ and tough moments I remembered: being in the same room with Mom and Dad during her diagnosis; the endless tears I cried both in public and private; the continuous struggle with insurance/hospital personnel for my mom to get the best care and the best surgeon; and the sobering moment when Mom asked me to take notes on her preferred funeral arrangements while she was having her thoracentesis (to remove fluid build-up in her lungs). Through the dark times, we were also met with the moments of great joy—I recalled one time when Mom’s opioid pain medications gave her ‘extra courage’ to try and dance, joke, and laugh with an infusion nurse during her chemotherapy treatments—there were so many medical angels who made Mom laugh! We also grew closer as a family, as my parents moved in with me until during this journey. We also spent a lot of time outside together—at parks and in nature, and this was grounding for our individual and collective journeys. While I do have numerous stories about my caregiving process, the one constant I appreciated was CanCare; along with the people who truly loved and witnessed Mom, Dad, and our voyage. There is a familiar term spoken at the end of many yoga classes: Namaste. There are many translations for this Sanskrit expression of respect, my favorite being: the light in me is the same as the light in you. I’ve recently learned about another term which conveys more bowing-irreverence to the receiver of the salutation: Namaskar. If I were to speak to you as a caregiver, I would say to you and your choice to embrace a survivor as a deep act of Namaskar. Embrace bowing to yourself as someone who gives care, embrace bowing to your loved one who takes on the journey of survivorship, and embraces bowing to the mystery connecting us all on this passage.
If you’re a caregiver reading this, please know that from the bottom of my heart I also bow with deep respect to your process. If you’re a care-receiver and survivor reading this, I bow equally to your process. Know that you are not alone in your respective paths. While there are numerous cancer initiatives out there, the unique beauty of CanCare is their ability to see you and meet you exactly where you are. You don’t have to be the best caregiver or survivor. You don’t have to have all the answers or know endless medical jargon. You don’t need to put on a happy face when all you want to do is hang up on the umpteenth insurance call or scream when treatment makes your hair fall out. To embrace what CanCare has to offer, I suggest having a willingness to ask for help, a willingness to look for answers, a willingness to receive or give care, a willingness to be seen heard and witnessed. Whether caregiver, survivor, or curious reader, I encourage you to reach out to CanCare and discuss matching up with a volunteer … I hope you find resilience, healing, love and hope throughout your own unique journey.
Special Gratitude and Thanks: To our amazing Family and Friends–Dad, what a rock you are to Mom; to Dr. Luis Camacho, who was willing to ‘go against the grain’ and walk with Mom in Hope; to the staff at East Houston Regional Medical Center–you are angels; to Dr. Geri-Lynn Fromm and staff … Dr. Fromm we are stunned and blessed to have you take fierce care of Mom; to Dr. Claire Ozaki–thank you for being a part of Mom’s healing; to the staff at St. Luke’s Hospital–thank you for making Mom’s post-op comfortable; to the staff and medical director(s) with Cigna Health spring–thank you for escalating and responding to Mom’s needs; to our amazing neighbors at Heritage Creek Village–your unconditional love and support are unwavering; to CanCare and tomy mentor-volunteer … thank you for holding space for me and lighting the way; and to the Ultimate Light that guided us all. And to my Mom, who showed me, through cancer, what it means to Fight gracefully, Love fully and Believe wholeheartedly–even through the Fear. I am so proud of your journey and I am so proud of you. Team Cora, always and forever!