In Memory of Barbara McIlwain
A heartfelt letter to his mom, Barbara McIlwain, forever 53 years old.
Written by her son, Parker McIlwain, 22 years old
Exactly one year ago today, my beautiful mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
I remember it all so clearly. As if it happened yesterday.
It was summertime and life was sweet.
My parents had just bought a lot in a beautiful neighborhood. They were getting ready to build a new house. The house that they were supposed to retire and grow old in.
My mother was thriving as VP of our family insurance agency. She absolutely loved her job.
I had just decided to get a puppy and accepted a job as a Microbiology teaching assistant for the Fall semester. My brother and I were getting ready to start our senior year of college. My only real worry was finishing up school.
Life was wonderful.
In all honesty, my life felt so complete – aside from being in the middle of a global pandemic. I remember saying to myself, “Wow Parker, you are so blessed.”
And then my mom started having sudden, intense heartburn during Memorial Day Weekend. Randomly. Out of the blue.
I remember thinking that it was probably something minute, such as a food or drink she’d consumed that wasn’t digesting well. I thought that an over the counter medication would be an easy quick fix and that she’d go right back to her healthy, vibrant self.
But the heartburn persisted.
It was after not even one week of having no relief, even with medications, that we as a family agreed she needed to go see her GI.
Her GI just wanted to prescribe her stronger heartburn medication. But my mom insisted on doing an upper endoscopy with biopsy. She’d never been offered one prior, but she wanted to do it this time just to be safe. She wouldn’t take a course of new medications unless she knew for a fact that it was only just heartburn.
She felt like God was telling her that she just really needed to do an upper endoscopy with biopsy.
Days later, she had an upper endoscopy with biopsy. I remember getting the call from her after the procedure was over. She told me that everything went fine. She was told that she had a case of mild “gastritis” (inflammation in the lining of the stomach) and an “ulcer”
Her GI prescribed her a course of antibiotics and a stronger heartburn medication. Whew! I was so relieved. I knew the biopsy results hadn’t come back yet, but her GI was confident that it was all going to be just fine.
And then the unthinkable happened.
2 days later, I got another call from my mom. From the second I heard the tone of her voice, I knew something was extremely wrong.
She uttered over the phone, “The biopsies just came back. I have stomach cancer.”
My whole body went numb. I started to sob hysterically. The first of countless sobs. I vividly remember verbalizing how badly I didn’t want my mom to go through this. I didn’t want to go through this. I was begging and pleading with God to not let this be real. It all just felt so deeply unfair.
Wait, what? Stomach cancer? Is that even a thing? I had never heard of stomach cancer before. Surely, the GI had confused her biopsy with someone else’s.
We have no family history of stomach cancer.
And, after all, my mom took REALLY good care of herself.
She’d ALWAYS been disciplined on getting her regular cancer screenings and check ups done. I remember being a young child and having her tell me about all of the appointments that she would go to, just so that she wouldn’t get cancer.
She ALWAYS did her routine mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, full body skin checks, etc. If there was a cancer screening available, she did it.
She was an established patient with her OBGYN, PCP, Dermatologist, GI and probably even more. She had so many doctors that I lost track.
She NEVER missed a screening, check up or appointment.
She NEVER had symptoms until Memorial Day Weekend.
Not even 3 weeks before her official diagnosis.
Surely, if she had stomach cancer, she would’ve had some severe, attention grabbing symptoms months prior.
But she had none. Zero.
Prior to her diagnosis, she was working out at Orange Theory Fitness 3-4 times a week. She had never been obese, smoked, abused drugs or alcohol. She had an overall healthy diet. She had no underlying health conditions.
It just had to be someone else’s biopsy results.
But it wasn’t.
She did indeed have stomach cancer. The “ulcer” was a malignant tumor and the “gastritis” was cancer in the lining of her stomach.
And to make matters even worse, she had a very aggressive form of stomach cancer known as “diffused gastric adenocarcinoma with signet ring cell”. I had NO idea what those words meant at the time, but I quickly learned. It was the nasty, really fast growing type of cancer that doesn’t respond to treatments well or appear clearly on scans.
I kept thinking, how did we get here? Was there something that we missed?
But there wasn’t.
She went and got checked the moment she had symptoms. She didn’t wait around.
You see, that’s the way cancer works…
Sometimes you don’t have any symptoms.
Sometimes you get a cancer that there are no early screenings available for.
Sometimes you do the proper cancer screenings and get a false negative.
Sometimes you get stage 4 colon cancer in your 30s, with no family history of it, when the US national screening age is 45.
Sometimes you get diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 cancer, you do the surgery + chemotherapy + radiation + immunotherapy. And the cancer still comes back.
Sometimes you get a cancer that, because of its location in the body, there is no way to surgically remove it. For instance, different types of brain tumors.
Sometimes you get an aggressive lung cancer when you’ve never smoked a day in your life.
Sometimes you do ALL of the checks ups, ALL of the available screenings, take REALLY good care of yourself, and you still get stage 4 cancer. Just like my mom did.
Do you see what I’m emphasizing here?
This disease is not black and white.
This disease does NOT discriminate.
Cancer doesn’t care how old you are.
Cancer doesn’t care what race you are.
Cancer doesn’t care what gender you are.
Cancer doesn’t care about your religion.
Cancer doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor.
Cancer doesn’t care if you have a family.
Cancer doesn’t care if you’re happy.
Cancer doesn’t care if you’re a good person.
Cancer doesn’t care if you’re famous.
Cancer doesn’t care.
Cancer is the epitome of how unfair and how cruel life can be.
No one is immune from this disease.
Even if you think you are, you sadly are not.
My mom fought for her life with literally everything she had for 10.5 months.
She was treated at the top cancer center in the US.
She completely changed her diet.
She cut out sugar.
She exercised often.
She did the chemotherapy.
She did the targeted drug.
She did the alternative treatments.
She did all of the things.
The cancer spread.
Sometimes you do all of the things.
And the cancer still grows and spreads.
Sometimes all the money in the world can not save you from succumbing to this disease.
Life is so precious. So fragile. And yes, it really can change in the blink of an eye.
I used to be one of those people who naively always thought that cancer was just something that happened to “everybody else”
Of course, I always felt sad for anyone who had cancer. But I remember thinking that cancer would always be somebody else’s reality, not mine.
My family took care of themselves and did their screenings. I figured that if by chance they ever did get cancer, it would be caught early with the screenings. They’d have it removed with surgery and go on with their life. In my mind, I had no real reason to worry about it. I was so naive. So blissfully unaware.
I wonder how many others have ever thought this, too?
To me, cancer was just something that you saw in the movies. It was the random post that you read about on social media. It happened to a friend of a friend that you didn’t really know. It always happened to somebody else. Not me.
I previously thought that if you got cancer, you must have had some serious symptoms that you ignored, or a family history of that type of cancer prior.
I thought that if you took good care of your body, your chances of getting cancer were close to none. I thought that if you did all of the proper screenings and follow ups that the coast was clear. You were safe from this disease.
Before my mom’s diagnosis, I never knew how cancer specifically worked. I just knew that it was a really bad word that I wanted no part of. I never cared to learn about it in detail because it hadn’t personally affected me.
But then it happened to my mom.
Who did everything right.
And it changed everything.
That’s how this disease goes.
Cancer always hits the person you love the very most. With no rhyme or reason. And once it does, you truly feel helpless. It’s all out of your control. We as humans like to think that we have control. But the truth is, you have 0 control with cancer. Zero.
How I wish cancer wasn’t a thing.
How I wish there was already a cure.
But this disease is not a one size fits all.
Every cancer is different.
I didn’t even know that there were different “cocktails” for chemotherapy until my mom was diagnosed.
I just thought that cancer is cancer, and chemotherapy is chemotherapy.
I didn’t know that certain cancers don’t show up on scans.
I just thought that all cancers showed up on all scans.
But this disease is so unfathomably complex.
Cancer really does have a mind of its own.
I hope that one day, there will be screenings available for ALL cancers. Because it’s the nasty “rare” cancers that are killing real human beings every single day. Real people with real lives and families just like everyone else. Babies, toddlers, teenagers, young adults, adults and elderly. Moms and dads. Sons and daughters. Cancer does not discriminate.
Today, there is no universal early screening available in the US for stomach cancer. None. Patients are only screened if they have a family history of it, carry genetic mutations associated with it, or even worse – have symptoms. These is no screening available as a preventative like we have for breast and colon cancer. The very reason that stomach cancer is known as a “silent killer” is because the vast majority of patients who have symptoms do not have them until it’s too late. The cancer has already spread.
According to 2021 data, the 5 year survival rate for advanced stomach cancer is only 6%.
Over 26,560 Americans will be diagnosed with stomach cancer per year. The large majority of those that are diagnosed with stomach cancer will be in the advanced stages of the disease (ie. stage 3 or 4).
According to 2021 statistics, out of 26,560 stomach cancer patients that are diagnosed within one year, 11,200 will die before that year is over.
Things have got to change. Early screenings must be put in place. Or nothing is going to change. People will continue to die from cancer.
Just like my mom did.
Why do people have to continue to die for more screenings to be put in place?
I hope that from sharing my mother’s story, others will become more aware of cancer.
I hope that others will realize that cancer can absolutely happen to them or the person they love the most, too.
No one is invincible to cancer.
Not even your doctor.
Not even Kim Kardashian.
My mother’s 10.5 month battle was awe inspiring. She fought with literally everything she had. She got up every single day and chose to continue to keep living. It would’ve been so easy to just lay in bed and feel sorry for herself. But she didn’t. She REALLY wanted to keep living. She was not ready to die. Not even one bit. She did everything she humanly could do to try and beat this disease. She never lost hope and she never gave up. Even when her doctors gave her no hope. Even when she was in the hospital in the final days of her life.
She never gave up.The sad reality of having cancer, or caring for someone with cancer, is that no one else will ever fully understand how horrible and earth shattering this disease is until it affects them individually. I would never wish this disease on another soul.
And, YES. Cancer really is as awful, as hard and as sad as it seems. There simply are no words to adequately describe cancer except that it really, really, REALLY sucks.
I love you with every cell of my composition. I miss you 24/7. I miss you every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day. Life without you sucks. I wish I didn’t have to know a life without you in it. There is a hole in my heart now that will never go away. When you died, a part of me died with you. Your absence is now a constant presence in my daily life. I know it will be that way until I take my last breath.
I am so sorry and so sad that you had to endure this disgusting disease. You didn’t deserve one millisecond of any of this.
“I’ll love you forever. I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my mother you’ll be.”
Forever in my heart.
I love you mama,