When Cancer Steals Mom Too Soon

By Lizette Robles - December 07, 2020

My story is not unique. Daughters and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters all over the world have experienced my journey. It’s a club I didn’t ask to join. It’s a feeling I never thought I would experience until I was older. But at 29, I lost my beloved mother, Maria Robles, to cancer. 

“I Don’t Want You to Worry but … ”

Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010, was like any other workday. I had just left Moffitt Cancer Center where I had finished my shift as the guest relations specialist for the Infusion Center. We would be celebrating Halloween the next day, so I headed home to get my costume ready. My department planned to dress up as the Moffitteers, Moffitt’s version of Disney’s Mouseketeers. I was halfway home when Mom called. We often spoke during my commute. But before I could start telling her about my day, it was clear this was not going to be a normal conversation. 

“Hi Pituka,” her nickname for me, “I don’t want you to worry but … ”

It’s the exact phrase you say to your only child to cause her to panic immediately. She was on her way to the emergency room after a co-worker told her she looked a bit yellow. I raced to get there as fast as I could.

Maria Robles graduation
Celebrating high school graduation with mom

Thanks to my bachelor’s degrees in communications and sociology and my affinity for medical TV dramas, I assumed something was wrong with her liver, which was impossible to believe. Mom had never been sick a day in her life. She exercised regularly, ate right, didn’t smoke and never drank, except for the occasional piña colada on vacation. In fact, she always got on my case about being lazy and watching TV instead of going to the gym. She was 58 years young and a model of health.

Mom needed a CT scan and was admitted overnight to get her dangerous blood pressure and glucose levels under control. Since the staff wasn’t overly concerned and Mom insisted she felt completely fine, Dad and I went home for the night and returned early the next day in time for the doctor’s rounds.

The following morning, Mom’s vitals started to stabilize. As my parents and I sat in the hospital room waiting to hear when she might be discharged, a young doctor walked in with a serious face. He asked if anyone had talked to us about the CT scan results and when we said no, his expression changed. That’s when I knew something was seriously wrong.  

The scans revealed a 12-centimeter tumor that appeared to be malignant on Mom’s right kidney. A 2.5-centimeter mass on her pancreas blocking her bile duct also appeared suspicious, and she needed a biopsy. 

In that moment, my parents were silent, but I was angry. How could this stranger tell me that my mother, who was the picture of health, had cancer? How could she have something that big growing inside her and not have any symptoms?

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Cancer Times 2

For the next two days, it was a revolving door of dozens of doctors and specialists describing different procedures they would perform on Mom, including the complete removal of her right kidney. The entire weekend was a whirlwind, topped off when one of the surgeons stopped by while Mom was in the shower. Prepare yourselves, the doctor said, because your mother will likely be “dead by Christmas.”

Those words will forever be ingrained in my mind. I was 28 years old. I had barely started my career. I was single. I did not have kids. I had no idea how to cook any of the traditional Cuban dishes that Mom made so well. This woman, my rock in life and my biggest cheerleader, could not possibly have cancer. I may have been an adult, but I was still her kid, and I needed my mom.

Maria Robles baby
Mom and me at 5-months

From the moment we heard the “C” word, my parents and I had very different reactions. Mom accepted the diagnosis but remained eternally optimistic because she didn’t initially feel sick. Dad, an Army veteran and lifelong mechanic, was in complete disbelief. I leveraged all my resources at Moffitt to learn everything I could about kidney and pancreatic cancer. I read all the statistics; I knew the grim odds and I knew exactly what was going to happen before it did. It was both a blessing and a curse to have so much information about her condition. It helped prepare me so I could be there for my parents, but it was an unbelievably difficult weight to bear on my own.

After Mom’s nephrectomy, the surgeon confirmed renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer, which they appeared to remove with the surgery. However, the biopsy results for the mass on her pancreas were inconclusive. The oncologist was optimistic that the pancreatic mass was not cancer and recommended that we follow up after the holidays.

The daughter in me was relieved, but the Moffitt infusion center employee in me knew better than to wait two months to learn more about a pancreas lesion. A week after being discharged after kidney surgery, Mom had her first appointment in the gastrointestinal oncology clinic at Moffitt. The second opinion by the experts I trusted confirmed my worst fear, stage 2 pancreatic cancer.

Holding out Hope for Surgery

Her treatment plan would consist of six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by five consecutive days of radiation to hopefully shrink the tumor enough so doctors could perform a Whipple procedure. She fared extremely well during those three months of treatment with minimal side effects. On March 30, 2011, Mom went in for the Whipple, an all-day affair. Her care team told us they would keep us informed throughout the operation, but we should settle in for a long day in the surgical waiting room at Moffitt.

After two short hours, which felt like a lifetime, I took Dr. Mokenge Malafa’s call from the OR. The cancer had spread to the lining of my mom’s abdominal cavity. Surgery was no longer viable. Her only option was to go back on chemo to try and keep the cancer stable for as long as possible. In a matter of hours, she went from a stage 2 diagnosis to stage 4.

I hung up the phone with a shaky hand and stood there for a moment to collect myself knowing as soon as I turned around, I would have to relay this devastating news. I was about to tell Mom’s husband of 42 years and her sister of 59 years that their best friend was living on borrowed time. We stood along the balcony outside of the second floor waiting area and cried in each other’s arms. By the time Mom made it to her room, the entire extended family was there.

Mom was determined to do absolutely everything she could to fight. We started walking laps around the fourth floor and the staff joked that she was training for a race because she pushed herself to walk faster with each lap. She spent eight days at Moffitt. I slept on a cot in her room and would wake up the next morning and walk to work on the opposite side of the building knowing she was in good hands.

Maria Robles chemo
Mom celebrating her 60th birthday at Moffitt's Infusion Center

A few weeks later, she began a new chemo regimen. This time, the side effects were pronounced: hair loss, vomiting, drastic weight loss, bloating, neuropathy, pain. You name it, she experienced it and it was the most excruciating thing I’ve ever had to endure because there was nothing I could do to fix it. But every single day for 17 months since her initial diagnosis with not one, but two different types of cancer, Mom would get up, get dressed, and do everything she could to fight for her life; fight for time with her family. I never saw her cry and I made it a point to never get emotional in front of her. I felt like I had to be strong for her, when in reality, she was the strong one. As soon as I’d get in my car to drive home, the ugly crying would commence.

Mom did whatever her doctors asked of her and remained hopeful, even as treatment options ran out.

We Always Thought We Had More Time

A year later on Good Friday, she was in so much pain that we took her to Moffitt’s Urgent Care, where the wonderful staff made her comfortable enough for us to get her home where she was surrounded by family until she passed. It was 12:36 a.m. on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012 when she took her last breath with Dad and me holding her hand.  

After spending the Easter holiday with family watching old home videos and reminiscing about the good times, we began planning for her service. I remember walking into her closet and just standing there thinking how am I supposed to pick out what my mother is going to wear to her funeral. We never talked about what she’d want to be buried in and I didn’t want to pick out the wrong thing. We never had any of those tough conversations. Although I knew cancer would ultimately take my mother from me, having those discussions was too real and we always thought we had more time.

I still have her voicemails saved on my phone nine years later, including a message she left asking me to order her home fried potatoes from her favorite breakfast restaurant. Her name is still listed in my contacts as one of my favorites with her cell number that no doubt now belongs to someone else. Mom loved palm trees and flamingos, so anytime I see either at the store, I must buy it because it reminds me of her. A few months before her neuropathy got really bad, I gave her a notebook that she turned into her daily diary. Her last entry was 40 days before she passed and pretty much sums up the relationship between my parents and me.

portrait of blockquote author

"Lovely 80-degree weather. I had a good day. Cooked for the whole week. You and your father peeled the potatoes and I just had to walk away since you both were getting on my nerves watching you use the peeler incorrectly. We had a laugh about it."

- Maria Robles - Feb. 27, 2012

People say time heals. I don’t necessarily think that’s entirely true. Time makes things different. I still miss my mom every single day, I’ve just learned to live in a world where she does not physically exist. Maria Robles was the most beautiful soul you could ever have the pleasure of knowing. Though I would give absolutely anything to have one more day with her, one more conversation on my drive home from work, one more shopping day at the mall, I am so grateful for the 29 years I was blessed to have her by my side and I know she is now my guardian angel taking care of me from afar.

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