Navigating the role reversal of becoming a caregiver for my mom

I was used to being the patient — until Mom received an unexpected diagnosis

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by Jennifer Bleecher |

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Last year, we had a big health scare in our family — but for the first time, it wasn’t about me and my cystic fibrosis (CF). My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer.

It was found early and by accident. She had a face and neck CT scan done for another issue, and luckily, the radiologist noticed the spot at the top of her left lung.

This finding set off a barrage of appointments and further testing, which is familiar territory for me, but not for my mom. She’s been healthy her entire life, so her cancer diagnosis was terrifying. I jumped to be by her side, just as she’s done for me many times throughout my life.

Although we’re used to me needing multiple doctors, appointments, medications, and testing, we both felt the difference when she was the one who needed those things. My mom and I have endured 52 years of me living with CF and surviving exacerbations, surgeries, and even a double-lung transplant. As my mother, she’s experienced feelings of guilt and helplessness at times, always fearing for my life. But this was the first time I’d feared for her life and confronted her mortality.

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Mom becomes the patient

Two blond women smile for a photo. The older woman, on the left, is seated on a large armchair and wear a light green sweater, black pants, and glasses. The other perches on the armrest with an arm around the older woman's shoulders. The younger wears a necklace, maroon top, and blue jeans.

Jen Bleecher, right, hugs her mom, Melody Limeburner. (Courtesy of Jen Bleecher)

I’ll never forget the day of her pulmonary function test. After the initial test was completed, the technician opened the testing chamber and administered two puffs of an albuterol inhaler. We had to wait for 10 minutes before she could repeat the test. The tech left the room, and Mom and I sat there quietly looking at each other. A few minutes went by before we said, simultaneously, “This is so weird.”

The situation felt surreal, as it’d always been me sitting in the chamber evaluating my CF lungs. Here I was after my transplant, breathing easily, while my mom was short of breath. She was the one inhaling the bronchodilator medication, while I no longer needed it. I had to slow down my walking pace for her.

Our roles were reversed, and I didn’t like it. I’m used to being the patient and can endure more physical pain than my mom. Juggling appointments, managing medications, and handling procedures are second nature to me.

She reminded me that it’s normal for someone her age to have medical issues, and how amazing it is that I feel well enough to be her support person. For me to have exceeded my early prognosis to this point is something she could only hope for. And as any mother would say, she’d much rather be the patient instead of me.

Comedy is one of our coping mechanisms for dealing with stressors, so we broke the seriousness of the moment with jokes and laughter. But deep down, we share emotions that don’t need words. We convey them through our eyes; the looks we share are felt in our souls.

Celebrating milestones on our journey

Fortunately, my mom was able to have the cancer surgically removed through a wedge resection of her lung. She has effects from having a portion of her lung removed, of course, but she remains cancer-free. We feel so blessed that this tumor was at the top of her lung, where it could be detected on an unrelated scan. Had it been in another location, we likely wouldn’t have known she had cancer until much later, and the outcome probably would’ve been much different. We count our long list of blessings often, and this one is huge for us.

Throughout the year that’s passed since her cancer diagnosis, the magnitude of the situation has remained in my thoughts. I’m grateful to be alive to see my mother age, and I feel privileged to act as her caregiver for the first time, to return a fraction of the care she’s provided for me. Most of all, I’m grateful to be able to help my mother in her senior years — something that hasn’t always been possible for CF patients. It’s another milestone for my mother and me.

As medical advances continue and those of us with CF live longer, I hope this experience of children becoming caregivers for their parents will become more commonplace. For now, I’m so grateful to navigate this journey with my mom.


Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.

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