Saying what you're not supposed to say - I can't stand my cancer patient mother

I have a confession to make. I cannot stand my mother.

This may not be such a shocking confession, but, my situation is a little different. My mother has cancer. You see, you’re simply not allowed to say anything disparaging about someone while they have cancer. It doesn’t matter if you felt this way before the diagnosis, or if they are nearly in remission. You are never, ever allowed to say anything bad about a cancer patient.

But here it is. I can’t stand my mother.

She is extremely narcissistic. Each time I force myself to call her (no less than every other week), she launches into a long description of everything that is happening in her life. And my father’s life. And their cats lives. And the lives of the people they go to church with. And the lives of her “blogger buddies.” She will always be polite, and ask what’s new with me, only to then cut me off midway my second sentence to tell me something else about herself. The last time we spoke on the phone, I asked five times what day my father was flying back from his visit to the NIH. Oh yeah, my father has cancer, too. She would pause, listen to me ask when dad was returning, only to completely ignore the question and continue describing her hair. Or what was happening with the TV. Or that the cat was listening to me on the phone.

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My mother has always had these tendencies, though being an empty-nester who works from home has not improved the situation. I can remember being a stubborn kindergartener, refusing to clean my room, and my mother telling me that I make her so angry she has to leave the house.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my dad had already been diagnosed with an extremely rare blood cancer for five years. Luckily, it is also very slow growing, and he has not needed to pursue treatment yet. Mom has always played a role, and she had gotten very good at playing “supportive wife to her terminally ill husband”. Now she was up for the role of a lifetime – cancer patient! My sister and I joked (because we are awful, terrible people with adjacent homes picked out in hell) that mom was not only going to beat cancer, but that she was going to get an A doing it! She dutifully researched treatment options, sought second, third, and fourth opinions, and settled on one of America’s best known cancer hospitals. To each doctor visit, she brings news articles of new treatments, nutritional supplements, and human interest stories of terminal patients beating cancer. Never mind that these treatments have nothing to do with her case, or that she was never terminal, or that she is not a doctor; she thinks that taking an active role in her health means that the only thing she is allowed to do is be a cancer patient. Each phone call, Skype, email, Facebook post, and tweet revolves around her cancer. She’s writing a devotional book for Christian women about facing death. At the hospital, she will talk to people on their 3rd, 10th, 40th round of chemotherapy and tell them to “Stay positive!” and “Focus on God!” while she only needed one round of six treatments. My mother giving chemo advice to cancer patients is like Oprah giving parenting advice; well intentioned, though ultimately insulting without experience in the field. If I listen to her tell another extremely ill person that she dresses up for treatment and wears “power shoes” to better fight her cancer, I will scream.

I would like to note that despite all of these thoughts, I have never said a negative word to her about any of this. I took copious amounts of time off work to travel to the hospital with her, as dad is too ill to travel so often. I drove hours to her home to care for her, I flew in tiny planes (one of my biggest fears) to be with her at the hospital, I sat in uncomfortable chairs for hours on end, got up after 4 hours of sleep, flew her home, drove myself home, and went back to work the next day, using up nearly all of my sick days. I never complained. I was pleasant, efficient, and caring, all the things one would expect from the best supporting actress role.

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