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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

The Last Thing I Told My Mom Was a Lie (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 15

By Olivia Smith

Content warning: death and dying

Olivia and her mom, Michelle, in Italy.

“I have some news to share with you girls. I went to the doctor because I have been having concerns with my breast. I found out that I have inflammatory breast cancer. I don’t have all of the details yet, but I know it’s a very aggressive cancer, but I’m going to fight it. This isn’t a death sentence.” – Michelle “Ginger” Griswold, 11 months before she passed. 

My mom and I didn’t have a perfect relationship. She did a lot of things that stressed me out, made me upset, annoyed me, and, frankly, hurt me. But I loved her; she was my one and only mom, and although we didn’t get along perfectly, she was a good person with a lot of love to give. I spent the last 11 months of her life taking time from work and visiting her when I could. I tried to push past the moments she upset me or stressed me out, and instead spend time working to understand her more and accept her for who she was. We’re all flawed individuals trying to enjoy this thing called life while we have the privilege to.

Olivia and her mom, Michelle, in Orlando.

I knew time was fleeting with her now more than ever, and we truly made some memories that year that I will cherish forever. One of my favorites was when I extended a work trip to Orlando and surprised her with a stay at the Princess Castle Hotel. When she heard I was going to Orlando for work, she mentioned how she hadn’t been yet and had always wanted to—my mom’s way of telling me it would really be cool if we explored Orlando together. We walked around Disney Springs while she had the energy, her with a margarita in hand, enjoying the scenery. We just spent the weekend exploring and hanging out together, just the two of us, and it became some of my favorite moments of that year, being able to provide her with love, support, laughter, and new experiences.

Ever since the day my mom told us she had cancer on the phone, my sister Stephanie and I both get anxious when anyone asks us to jump on a three-way call. We had to take many more three-way calls together in the following 11 months, none of them with good news. The purpose of this piece isn’t to document those 11 months but to talk about the last month.

This wasn’t our mom’s first experience with cancer. She had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma about seven years prior and had been in remission, doing well. This wasn’t our first cancer rodeo. Of course I understood it was a much more aggressive and severe cancer, but why should the outcome be any different? We would fight it, and she would be okay, just like last time. 

For my mom, that diagnosis did end up being a death sentence. One that came much sooner than any of us had prepared or hoped for, with a lot of highs and extreme lows throughout. The last three-way call we were on with our mom, she told us from the oncology hospital that she wasn’t responding to the third round of treatment that they had hoped would be a miracle drug for her, after she quickly stopped responding to the first two treatment plans. I remember sitting at a red light while receiving this call, feeling like the wind was knocked out of me while feeling numb in the same instant.

After an agonizing 11 months with metastatic breast cancer, she had told me a few weeks prior that if this treatment didn’t work, she didn’t think she wanted to put her body or mind through any more. As tough as it was to hear, my sister and I assured her we supported whatever she chose for her body and her quality of life. As much as I selfishly wanted her to try everything and stay with us as long as she could, I respected her decision and could never ask her to suffer longer for us. 

Olivia and her mom, Michelle, before radiation.

The following day, I decided to stay home from a work trip I had been planning and looking forward to all year, as we still didn’t have a full picture of what my mom’s newest health update meant. We knew it didn’t look good, but we still had no timeline. I felt dramatic for canceling because my mom was in the hospital and not doing well. It wasn’t like she was going to die that day, so why did I cancel this work trip that was important to me? Thankfully, I had a wonderful boss who allowed me to have a flexible schedule while my mom was sick and spend as much time with her as I could when I wanted. However, I still carried that guilt for not showing up every day with 100% of myself that year. 

A few hours later, I was sitting on the couch in my living room when my mom attempted another three-way call with my sister and I. This time, my sister wasn’t able to answer immediately. When I answered, my mom was on the other end of the line crying and apologizing because there was nothing left they could do. “The cancer has almost completely destroyed my liver and other organs. I’m in 83% liver failure. I have days to weeks to months left. I’m going to go home with hospice; I’m so sorry,” my mom tearfully told me. “Don’t apologize, I will be there soon,” I said.

I sat on the couch in shock, fear, anger, and disbelief. I knew this outcome was possible, I had googled all the statistics. I knew this day would come eventually, breast cancer or not, but I thought we had so much more time together. The 5-year life expectancy of her cancer was 19%. My mind believed that she was so strong, always had been so strong, she would be one of those 19%, she had to be. And if she wasn’t part of that 19%, well then surely we would at least have close to another five years after diagnosis, right? 

I live near Charlotte, NC and my sister was living in Roanoke, VA from the time my mom was diagnosed until her death. I called my sister and we made arrangements to visit our mom. I sobbed into my husband’s arms when he came home from work. I cuddled my dog. I booked hotels for my sister and me to stay in on our way down and back up, splitting up the long drive, hoping she wouldn’t die on that trip. Partially because I still hoped she’d defy the odds, that they were wrong, she had more time, the medicine just needed a few more days to kick in. And partly, selfishly, because I didn’t want to watch her die. How could I possibly handle watching the woman who brought me onto this earth leave it? How could I ever manage that and be okay afterward? How could I watch my mom take her last breath? 

We hadn’t even really discussed her death yet, and what she wanted. She told my sister what she wanted for a funeral, but that was it. She hadn’t signed a will yet, hadn’t told me what she wanted from me. We hadn’t had those conversations I wanted to have, knowing I forgive her for the things she carried guilt for throughout her time as my mother. I wasn’t ready for those conversations yet, and I didn’t feel like bringing them up. I told myself I was giving her the space to talk to me about it when she was ready. But in reality, I was afraid to have those conversations with her because that meant the end was inevitable.

Read More:

On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations

A Caregivers Guide to Cancer


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