Cancer + Avoidance = Trainwreck. Can you help clear the rails?
January 27, 2009 2:56 PM   Subscribe

My aunt has potentially terminal cancer. She's avoiding making any decisions, but she's also not doing anything to enjoy the present. My mother is a wreck. Is there anything at all that I can do to help?

My aunt, who just celebrated her 60th birthday, was diagnosed about 2 months ago with metastatic breast cancer. She had breast cancer and treatment (radiation + chemo) and went into remission 2 years ago, but it's back, and in a big, ugly way. The cancer is in her lymph nodes, her kidneys, and just recently she found another tumor on her skull. Prior to discovery of that tumor, the 2-year survival rate for the cancer that she has is predicted to be approximately 15%. Despite all of this, she's currently feeling quite well. Physically, that is.

Mentally and emotionally, though, I just don't know. She hasn't updated her will since before the first bout. She hasn't contacted her therapist, one of the longest-running and most positive relationships in her life (by her own description). She claims she has decided to go for chemo again, but is putting it off until... well, until one of her rental properties is fixed up and has tenants, and the fancy wig she ordered is made, and, and, and... Sometimes she talks about going to Brazil for psychic surgery instead. She's made mention of just traveling a lot. But she's not actually doing anything. Which I think is related to her depression (situational, naturally, but also long-running and throughout the family).

For a bit more background, my aunt was never married and has no children. She has a close network of friends, who have supported one another through many illnesses. She lives in Los Angeles. I (the only one in my generation) am in Indiana. My mother is in New Mexico.

My mother, her only sister, is of course a mess. My mother is a deeply emotional, somewhat pushy woman, and continually is trying to suggest things. Things she's suggested have included: my aunt going to New Mexico for her chemo, so she won't be alone; going for a spa weekend together to try to have some relaxing and pleasant time together. All shot down. Granted, my mother is so very weepy and emotional that my aunt's response was "Geez, [sister], I'm not buried yet." My mother is also tempted to contact my aunt's therapist, which I'm pretty sure I talked her out of doing (thank you, this thread for providing talking points).

I live far away. I talk to them both frequently. I haven't tried urging my aunt to talk to her therapist, or work on her will, or anything like that. My sense is that while this is an extraordinarily painful situation, my aunt will do whatever she will do. It's not about me, it's not about my mother, it's about my aunt, and her fears and hopes for whatever time she has left. So I'm trying to let it go, let it be, accept that she's going to make (or not make) her own decisions and that all I can do is let her know I love her. So maybe I should stick to the chatty phone calls. But. I worry about my aunt's inability to get going on any course of action. Start chemo, decide not to do it and travel the world, hell, even go to Brazil for psychic surgery, whatever. I really just wish she weren't hanging out in the land of avoidance, a.k.a. the anteroom of hell. I go back and forth between the acceptance and the anger over, and over, and over.

So what it comes down to is "what can I do to help?" And I mean help with anything. Anything to help my mother be more okay with my aunt's pace. Anything to help my aunt pick up the damn pace? To get her to at least deal with her will, so California probate doesn't eat the next years of my life if and when she passes? To take care of herself by talking to her shrink? Anything to help my mother get my aunt to pick up the pace? Just... anything. What can I do to help?

And, uh, thanks to all for reading to the end.
posted by amelioration to Human Relations (7 answers total)
Sounds as if you're already doing the most helpful thing - show them you are there for them and support them both.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2009

I sent you mefi mail.
posted by miss tea at 3:50 PM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: I'm sorry your family is in this situation. I think you need to focus on helping your mom, because she's really having a hard time, and the pressure she's putting on her sister to do fun stuff while she's got time is only making things worse. For now, let your aunt tell you what she wants from you. You've got some time before you need to worry about the will, and chances are decent that your aunt will become more willing to deal with that when she no longer feels so normal.
posted by jon1270 at 4:25 PM on January 27, 2009

I cannot recommend the Lance Armstrong Foundation strongly enough for anybody dealing with cancer, either as a patient, caregiver, or whatever.

Best wishes from over here for what must be a very tough situation.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:01 PM on January 27, 2009

For a patient with recurrent cancer, opting out of further treatment may well be a reasonable decision. She should be encouraged to seek palliative treatment (medication for pain, etc.) when it becomes an issue.

You seem to be focused on her "will". I see nothing in your post about her children. If she has no children, her parents and/or her siblings are her default heirs if she does nothing. Maybe she is sticking her head in the sand, but that may not create a problem.

The best that any family member can do is to provide whatever level of support can be provided.
posted by megatherium at 7:37 PM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: Suggest that she visit the Wellness Community in Santa Monica. It's for individuals and their loved ones who are dealing with cancer. It is an extremely welcoming place that offers educational programs, group get-togethers, enjoyable hobby classes, and counseling. She'll be able to interact with others in similar situations, and gain strength and support.

Though your aunt may seem stuck right now, she may be struggling to process the terrible realization that she is very ill. She may be grieving, obsessing about her mortality, postponing decisions due to denial, or simply working through her shock and fear. Give her patience, gentle support, and love. They are the greatest gifts you can offer her.
posted by terranova at 8:36 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone. I think I really needed to hear that being the quiet voice of support and not trying to suggest 'fixes' or 'options' was the right thing to continue doing. I will definitely pass along the information about the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which looks like it could be of immense value to my mother, and the Wellness Community (my aunt is, fortuitously enough, actually in Santa Monica).
posted by amelioration at 7:29 AM on January 28, 2009

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