My mother, who has breast cancer, asks me to visit her every time she thinks there's a crisis. What should I do?

7 answers | Last updated: Dec 07, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother, who is 72, is suffering from metastatic breast cancer -- and I'm the primary caregiver, even though I live at the opposite end of the country. She calls me all the time, telling me there's a new crisis with her health and asking me to come home to care for her. I have an 8-year-old daughter and work full-time, and I can't just get on a plane every time she asks me to. How do I handle this?

Expert Answers

Bonnie Bajorek Daneker is author and creator of the The Compassionate Caregiver's Series, which includes "The Compassionate Caregiver's Guide to Caring for Someone with Cancer," "The Journey of Grief," "Handbook on Hospice and Palliative Care," and other titles on cancer diagnosis and end of life. She speaks regularly at cancer research and support functions, including PANCAN and Cancer Survivor's Network. She is a former member of the Executive Committee of the CSN at St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta and the Georgia Chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Your first task is to find out what's really going on and how serious it is. Your mother may just be trying to tell you that she's lonely.When your mother was first diagnosed and started treatment, she probably got lots of attention amidst a flurry of activity. Now that things have settled into a more long-term pattern, she may be having trouble adjusting to not having a lot of company.

Get yourself a local intermediary -- a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or a professional -- who can be your eyes and ears. When you get the call, tell your mother you're very concerned and you're sending that person over to make sure everything's OK. This will help her feel that you're taking her concerns seriously, and you'll have a way of assessing the situation.

If you have the means, it would be a good idea to hire a professional who can visit your mother regularly -- once a week for half an hour, say -- and give you a regular status report: How much pain is your mother in? What symptoms is she experiencing? What's her emotional state like? That way, you can get at the truth of what's going on without flying across the country to be there.

You might also get some valuable information that you wouldn't get even if you were there. Sometimes a patient will tell a third party things she wouldn't tell family members or her doctor.

I'd also suggest that you address the emotional issues with your mother, since it's likely that she's using her illness as a way to get more time with you and perhaps her granddaughter as well. Remind her that you have responsibilities and ask her not to take your absence as a slight.

You could say something like, "Mom, you were a great role model because you were such a caring, involved mother. Now I'm trying to be like you and do the same thing for my own daughter. I need to be with her, and she needs to be here in school, so we can't come as often as we'd like." Taking this approach helps you change the perspective and make your mother feel strong by acknowledging what an important role she played for you.

Community Answers

Echo answered...

Being a cancer survivor myself and knowing that a recurrence could occur at any minute, my guess would be that your mom knows her time is now limited and she wants to spend as much of it as possible with you and her granddaughter. You can't fault her for this. Until you have death looking you in the eye, you have no idea what it's like knowing that your days are numbered. Yes, we all know we're going to die at some point. But at only 72, your mom should still have a good 10-15 yrs left to enjoy life. Now that is being cut short.

My oldest son moved just after my chemo ended to the other side of the country. I want to spend time with him but I can't. And it's heartbreaking. You're a mom----think about how you would feel if the situation were reversed and your daughter was older and living far away from home. Wouldn't you want to spend as much time as you could with her if you knew your time on this earth was coming to an end?

Is there any way that you could have your mom come and stay with you for awhile? Maybe a couple weeks or a month at a time after her treatments have ended?

Derickson answered...

The telephone is a wonderful way to keep in touch. Could you set aside 10 minutes or so every day to call your mom BEFORE there is a crisis? I wonder if this anticipated contact could help soothe some anxiety on both sides. There is nothing like the sound of a friendly, caring voice. Life is short and cannot be recalled once taken.

Newnelly answered...

Dear Anonymous: Your mother spent 18 years of her life caring for you, Anonymous. Now your mother needs your help. Why is your mother living so far away? You should bring your mother to, either live with you, or find an assisted living retirement in your neighborhood nearby. I would think, with your mother being ill and 72 years old, you would want to spend as much time as you possibly can, sharing your life. I lost both my parents when I was a teenager and I wish they were here, for me to to care for their needs. The way you treat your mother now in her time of need, your daughter is watching you, she will someday be treating you the same way, when you're old, ill & lonely.

Belindabg answered...

My Mom passed away from a Breast Cancer tumor in her brain in September. She suffered from all sorts of 'ills' for the past 30+ years of her life. We were all just basically 'worn out' dealing with it all.
I had written you a very long email on here and it got erased when I was ready to post it, but suffice it to say, PLEASE DON'T ALLOW ANYONE TO MAKE YOU FEEL GUILTY about TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST. If you can't be with your Mother now, do the best you can to stay in contact with her, and be gentle in your explanation to her as to WHY. But stay firm and resolved, and TAKE CARE OF YOU. There are TOO MANY comments on here telling you to 'be with her now, no matter what' - and your responsibility is to YOURSELF AND YOUR DAUGHTER FIRST, and to parents and their needs, Second. Do what you can and ask for help where you can get it. Check into Family Medical Leave policies at your work. And please ignore those on here who don't understand your situation. I understand it fully, and dealt with this for YEARS. Best of luck to you - hang in there.

Echo answered...

Dear Anonymous--I certainly hope that you don't take the selfish advice of belindabg. This is how she feels about her OWN mother who gave her life?? Sad, really sad. I feel so sorry for her mom. It must have broken her heart to find out that her own daughter considered her nothing more than a pest--an intrusion on her life (which she wouldn't even have had had it not been for her mom~)

Please remember that your mom is already 72----I can guarantee you she doesn't have 30 years to live! She may only be here for another year or two--maybe not even that long. Do you really want to follow belindabg's advice and then regret later that you abandoned your mom in her time of need? Think back to ALL the years that she did things for you----the sacrifices she made for you. The ONLY time that you should put yourself first when you have a parent that needs your help/support is when you or your immediate family are experiencing health issues.

I took care of my mom the last 2 yrs of her life. And I certainly don't regret doing so. I am glad that I was there for her--to give back the love & support she gave me over the years. And, yes, I had small children then--my youngest was 5; oldest 10. I lived an hour's drive (one way) from her, but still went there 3 times a week for almost 2 yrs. Then when she ended up in the hospital, (where she ended up dying), I went there twice a day for over a month. The hospital was over half-an hour's drive, one way. I also had a part-time job. It was hard to juggle it all and I was worn out. But she was my mom! My kids didn't suffer for it because I wasn't there every second with them. Yeah maybe I couldn't go on that field trip but they learned that sometimes you have to put others first. One of the problems with society now is that you have too many people who have the type of attitude like belindabg.

I can understand about you living cross-country from her. You don't have that option of just hoping in a car to go see her. But you could keep in contact with her daily and/or possibly move her closer to you.

I'm assuming that you don't have any siblings and that's why you're her primary caregiver? Does your mom have any siblings that live close by to her? If not, what is the problem with bringing her to live closer to you? That would seem to settle your dilemma unless you're a selfish, ungrateful person such as belindabg and are just using the excuse of living so far away in order to 'justify' why you can't be there for her.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My mom is also battling cancer. I to have a family and feel torn. My two boys have a busy schedule . I stay home with my kids . We are a military family so the future is always unstable as far as orders and moving. I have always been there for my mom at her toughest times. With my husband being the only bread winner in the family, it gets financially burdening to get a flight out every month, not to mention my husband works 12-14 hrs a day and has an hour commute or more. Also , deployments. I have no family to help me and a one network person that helps me when she can in top of her also being a military family of five. We are also less than a year at this duty station , so I know nobody and I can't just leave my kids with anybody. My mom could come where I live but what do I do when we get orders? She's fighting cancer and is immobile. She lays guilt in me every time I talk to her on the phone. I do what I can and when I can considering our situation. When I go see her I stay in the convalescent facility because I can't afford hotels for two weeks at a time or transportation.I have no family members close to her that I can stay with. I do what I can and it's never good what you can to let her know you love her even if it's a little bit of time.