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FEARLESS FRIDAY: What to Do, How to Help, & How to Not Completely Freak Out

By Amalah

Dearest Amalah,
If there was ever a time in my life that I was in need of advice, it is now. Three weeks ago my mom found a lump in her breast. Two weeks ago the biopsy came back malignant. Next week she’s going in for surgery. This is a whole lot of change to happen in three weeks, and I’m shell shocked, to say the least. And so my question is, well, what the hell do I do now? What can I expect in the next weeks, months, years? I’m trying to figure out how to keep my own life togeter, be a support for my mother, sisters, brother, father, and also give myself time and permission to grieve this situation.
I spent the first week fully exhausted from the stress of it all. The second week had a few “angry days” (as seen here) and now, I’m just lost. I am feeling powerless and scared and I just don’t know what to do. And while I feel more alone than I ever have before, I know that there are hundreds of women out there who have been affected by breast cancer, and unfortunately there are hundreds more who will be someday. What can I do to feel like I have some semblance of control in a situation that leaves a family so powerless? Any suggestions on good books/websites/anything that would be a place to start educating myself on all of this? (Because typing “invasive lobular breast cancer” into google is not the best way to begin the search, this I have found.)
The other part of this is, what can I do for my mom? (Besides just being there for her, crying together and eating cupcakes.) We’re having a “boob voyage!” party this weekend that will consist of my two sisters,
my mother, chocolate, and lots of rum. In addition to the emotional support, what kinds of things can I do to pamper her and her new body?
We won’t know if she’ll need chemo until after the full pathology report, but if she does, are there any ‘typical’ changes (besides the obvious hair loss) that the body goes through during chemo? Any clothing lines that cater to women who have had breast cancer related surgeries? Any skin (hair?) care products that are especially gentle or
helpful for any potential skin problems that might crop up?
My mom always joked that at 50 she was going to get her breasts done (she nursed 4 kids, for 6-12 months each, and could use a little lift) and hey, now it’s covered by insurance! She turns fifty this May, and we’re looking forward to it as a new beginning for her and for us all.
So, thanks for letting me ramble on, and now I turn it over to you (and the AlphaFoxyMamas?) to offer anything you can possibly think of to help soften the mighty blow that’s hit my family. I know this is a tall order, but any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks much,

Well, first things first: I’m really sorry. Really and deeply sorry this happened to your family.
Second things second: You will GET THROUGH THIS. Hurdle by hurdle; test by test; day by day.
tattoo_large_lg.jpgObviously, every family is different, and we all use different coping mechinisms. So I’m just going to tell you what worked for me and my family in the days and months after my mom’s cancer diagnosis.
Don’t focus on her cancer. Being informed and educated is important, but there’s a very hazy line between “researching” and “fixating,” as you probably already learned after your trip to Google University. Whenever I encountered some medical-talky-speak I didn’t understand, I checked out the Susan G. Komen site (scroll down to the “Helping You” section) or the American Cancer Society. Both sites are helpful, direct and — above all — not overwhelming.
I didn’t buy any books on cancer because I couldn’t bear having them on my nightstand, honestly. (I was also pregnant, and therefore neurotic enough, thankyouverymuch.) But a book I wish I’d read at the time was (pardon the Oprah-self-help tangent here) Arianna Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless. I know, I know. On the surface, it’s a book about relationships and work and how we all hold ourselves back. But it’s a good book about being strong, for yourself and for others and refusing to let fear rule your life and impact your decisions. And like I said — don’t focus on your mom’s cancer. That’s fear. Focus on your mom. And life. And good things. That’s fearlessness.
Okay. Now let’s get down to the practical stuff.
Post-surgery, your mom is going to need the softest and most comfortable pajamas you can find. Cushiony socks and slippers, a nice robe for when she feels better, you get the idea.
My mom didn’t have to do chemo, thank God, so I don’t have any first-hand recommendations for headscarves or hats. Commenters? Anyone? I have heard very good things about the Lindi Skin Care line, though. It’s designed specifically for chemo and radiation patients.
As for post-surgery-post-everything clothing, even if your mother opts not to surgically reconstruct her breast, she’ll just want to wear “normal” clothes. Trust me on that. Her insurance should cover her bras and a prothesis, and will give her a list of local places she can buy these at. (This isn’t something you want to order online. Custom is waaaay better.) Mastectomy swimsuits are also available. My mom found the boutique in her area to be absolutely wonderful — staffed with other survivors who cared deeply about helping every woman look her best. But other than that, take her shopping at her favorite stores. A mastectomy won’t define her, so if she’s always been a Talbot’s or Chico’s or whatever sort of lady, that’s what she’ll still want to be.
Someone else gave my mom a really pretty breast cancer bracelet (similar to one of these), and she wears it every day. That’s her reminder, and that’s all she needs.
It actually sounds like your family is doing a lot of things right already. You obviously care very deeply, and you’re all pulling together. (I absolutely love that you threw a Boob Voyage party for your mom by the way. Absolutely love that.) Take care of each other. Don’t let anyone view this as a death sentence, because it’s NOT. More women are surviving breast cancer than ever. You will GET THROUGH THIS, and maybe this time next year, you and your mom and your sisters will be doing a breast cancer walk together, to help other families just like yours have the same happy ending.
You know, a commenter left a really similar question over at my personal site — just a couple days after you sent your email. Another mother having a masectomy and another daughter struggling to know what to do. I’m going to include some advice that another commenter left, because it’s really good stuff. (Especially for daughters who aren’t geographically close to their mothers and might feel a little helpless in that regard.) Thank you, Brid, for sharing all your ideas.

Call her every day and tell her the stupid stuff that happens — the driver who turned left from four lanes over in the right turn lane, or the person behind you at the grocery store who bought four cans of spam and a cucumber. Just short little talks about normal things.
Send her real mail. Email is great, but there’s nothing like getting actual mail. Not sappy sympathy cards but letters on stationary or cards with cute animals, beautiful flowers, or funny sayings. You can even clip comics out of the paper to send.
Carepackages: something small like a pretty color of nail polish or one of those soothing eyemasks. or something bigger like a lighthearted book or a pair of slippers. or something compeltely random that just makes you think of her.
Food-wise, eating can be a big deal. If you know family or friends in the area, getting them to do grocery shopping or bring over a meal would be great. Even if your mom doesn’t feel like eating, she might be the person normally in charge of making meals and having something there for others will keep her from worrying.
Don’t worry (too much) about not being able to be there physically. Your comment shows that you love and care for you mom.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Secha

    April 27, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    First off, I want to say I’m so sorry to hear that you have to go through this. It’s scary. *hugs*
    My aunt had… I think it was lymphoma. (Sorry, the spelling is probably horrible) and she lost all of her hair. She was always one to have very pretty accesories to go with whatever she was wearing, so she asked my mom to make her a bunch of headscarves. They were all in pretty, vibrant colors, in a silky material. It cheered her up, a lot. When she wasn’t wearing her wig (which was important, since my uncle is a professional photographer, and she didn’t want to scare the kids), she had one of those scarves on.
    Whenever she came home from chemo, though… she was so worn out. She’d feel sick, or tired, for 2 or 3 days. And then she’d get better, just in time to go back for more chemo. But now, she’s doing fantastic.
    My ex’s grandmother, had lung cancer. They found out, and that same day they started chemo, it was that bad. And same thing, she would crash after the chemo. But I think because of her age, they also had some sort of demensia set in. She got real argumentative, and she would claim that she ate dinner, or that she took her medication, and she didn’t. They had to try and make her do these things, because if they didn’t, she would have gone down hill. She still looks sick-ish, the last time I saw her, but I think she’s getting stronger. I’m not sure how she is, though, since my ex and I broke up 10 months ago.
    I’m not saying these things to scare you, but more of a “what to expect” should she have to go through chemo. I hope she doesn’t, though. I wish you and your family the best of luck, and stay strong.

  • Anne Glamore

    April 27, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    I’ll make this practical, but here’s my .02.
    1. You and your sisters will have different strengths so divvy up stuff according to them. If one of you is skeeved out by hospitals, she should not be driving your mom to chemo. Let her coordinate dinners or whatever.
    2. I think 2 people, the patient and another person, need to be present at all medical appts to make sure you get all the info and ask all the questions. Take notes.
    3. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
    4. Stay off the internet– especially your mom. If it gets to the point where there is a therapy being offered that someone needs to research, let someone else do that research. She needs to concentrate on her ownself.
    5. Make sure that her regime (other meds, new meds, etc) is written down somewhere and that someone is delicately checking to make sure everything is being done – meds taken, but only once. Chemo can screw with your memory.
    6. When her friends ask what they can do to help, assign them a job. It makes them feel needed, gives you a break, and keeps your mom in the loop. I can’t stress this enough. They can take her to chemo, run laundry, pick up a nightgown, be responsible for email or phone tree updates, etc.
    7. If she has trouble eating, find the thing that she can eat. Boost was better for ensure for us– really cold. Also, you know that gross salad made out of cherry jello, coke, cherries and pineapple? People have been known to live on that for months!!
    8. Trust your instincts. (Second Opinions by Jerome Groopman– great book)
    9. Life is too short to deal with nasty people. If a healthcare provider is not being kind or listening, politely but firmly request another person or restate your concern. Just because the blood taker is having a bad day doesn’t mean she has to jab your mom in the arm.
    10. Doublecheck things. If they take blood, make sure your mom’s name gets on the tube. If they give her med, make sure it’s hers, not the patient’s in the next room.
    11. Your mom has a right to look at the medical record. It’s hers.
    Hope this helps.

  • Kathleen

    April 27, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    When I was 16, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, so a long summer of chemo followed.
    She has been cancer-free for 10 years now, thank God.
    I was my mom’s at-home caregiver during that time, since my parents were divorced and she and I lived alone. It is a very intense process but, like Amy said, you will get through it.
    In terms of the surgery, ditto on the gorgeous pajamas/robe/slippers. I know that helped my mom to feel somewhat pretty/normal during the time after her surgery, both in the hospital and at home, as well as throghout her chemo experience. She splurged big time and spent (I think) a couple hundred bucks on this, but it was so worth it. And she still wears the pjs and robe today!
    Make sure she has help to take care of her house. My mom is one of those people who doesn’t rest unless forced to — and this forced her to. Thankfully, I was there, and thankfully we had friends bring meals and help clean the house and such. That was a huge help to her, knowing that I was taken care of and that her house was being taken care of.
    If she does have to endure chemo, it’s going to be hard, but again — you will get through it. I think this can vary, but when my mom went thru chemo, she wasn’t supposed to go into many public places (your immune system is lowered so you are very susceptible to illness), which was hard. If we went out to eat, we sat outside b/c the risk of germs spreading was less.
    During chemo, she’d go to work for four days, have chemo on Friday, and be sick the whole weekend. It was really rough but for her, working during chemo was the best thing because it helped her feel like she was still a contributing member of society.
    Food is a big issue during chemo. A friend who had been through chemo brought my mom a care basket of things that she could eat, which was helpful.
    The hair loss is hard to see…make sure she gets the best wig money can buy. Even though we were totally poor (single mom, etc) she did this and it really helped her to feel not so haggard when she did have to go out.
    My mom did breast reconstruction surgery (basically had a saline-filled implant put in) and is very glad she did. She can wear almost anything and you can’t tell the difference. Tank tops are not do-able, though, because of how it looks under her arm where they removed lymph nodes.
    My mom was 47 when she was diagnosed, and it caused her to go into menoupause, so that is something to be prepared for.
    Please email me anytime if you want to talk through this with someone who has been there. It’s a very hard road…but there are people who have been through it and you and your mom and the rest of your family will join that group someday.

  • TheHolls

    April 27, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    I’m a newspaper health reporter, so I’ve interviewed and written about lots of women with breast cancer over the years. Here’s a few tips that come to mind, gleaned from those encounters (sorry to if I’m long-winded, Amy!):
    1. If you want a book (for you, your sisters or your mom), Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book is awesome. It’s updated almost every year, so it’s got all the latest info on the fast-moving science involved in things like HER-2 breast cancers, etc etc.
    2. If any of you are techie, there’s a cool new resource at that offers breast cancer podcasts on all sorts of topics about the disease. Click on Go Health once you get to the site.
    3. If she’s on the ‘Net, maybe encourage her to look into some of the online support groups for the disease, like those on Yahoo Groups. I’ve talked to a few women who’ve become really close to the women they’ve gotten to know — there’s specific groups for people going thru treatment at the same time, etc — and traveled together in groups and stuff.
    4. For farther down the road, when she’s feeling better, it would be tons of fun for y’all to get together to walk together in your local Race for the Cure. If you’ve never been, these events are really massively awe-inspiring.
    5. The American Cancer Society has a program that’s called Look Good, Feel Better where it’s basically a fun beauty lesson afternoon for women coping with cancer. I’ve covered these events, and seriously, the women have heaps of fun (they dole out lots of freebies, including good makeup like MAC), and you could even go with her.
    6. If she’s being treated at a big(ish) cancer center, they should have a shop right in the hospital that does prosthesis and mastectomy bra fittings, and helps with wigs (though I’ll keep my fingers crossed that she doesn’t wind up getting to that point!) — these can be nice resources in the sense that they’re set up at your “home base” for treatments and don’t require hauling all over town when she’s not feeling her best.
    Feel free to email me if I can be of any other help! Good luck to you and your mom!

  • Meghan

    April 27, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you all so much for the comments, and to everyone who has stopped over at my site. I am just overwhelmed, and I knew that if I posed this issue to ‘teh internets’ there would be awesome smart people who could offer their experiences.
    I’m at the hospital right now using the free WiFi (sweet!) to check email and I started to cry when I read the full post to my mother.
    The update is that she is looking awesome, she had saline expanders put in to begin the reconstruction process, and she will in fact need chemo. I’m going to get back to my mom for now, but I’ll continue to check back to read new comments, and feel free to email me or comment on my site if you want. You guys RAWK!~

  • Secha

    April 27, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Oh, another thing I meant to mention up above. One of my co-workers wife just finished up her treatments from breast cancer, and just had her breast reconstruction done. He came over and told me on Tuesday that she’s going to go get a tattoo done, and when I asked of what, he said a nipple. So, right now it may be hard, but once she’s fully recovered, then it’s just something that makes her stronger, and possibly have a sense of humor about it. =) It also gives you a whole new outlook on life, and the little things aren’t as important anymore. If a glass dish breaks, where before you may have gotten upset, you realize it’s just something material. Someone I know who use to tap dance with my mom, is a long time survivor of breast cancer. She just turned something like 88 years old, and just stopped tap dancing 2 years ago. =)

  • Ewokmama

    April 27, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    First, I’m really sorry. Cancer is nasty stuff. All I can say is to hang in there.
    Second, a product that might help with the pampering is Philosophy’s Shower for the Cure shower gel. It’s a shampoo/bodywash combo that is supposed to have a mild scent for those going through treatment. Also, part of the purchase goes toward funding research.

  • lauralaylin

    April 27, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    The part about nice pjs made me think of this site. I don’t own them so I don’t know if they’re good first hand, but they sure sound nice. I’m sorry I can’t be more of a help, good luck with everything though!

  • thepaperdoll

    April 27, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    i lost my mom to ovarian cancer a year and a half ago after a very long battle.
    two surgeries. rounds and rounds of chemo. nine month hoptial stays.
    the thing that helped us the most through all of it was embracing every emotion we felt and being very open about it all.
    we laughed a lot. we cried a lot.
    we celebrated life most of all. simple pleasures became so important.
    the things that helped most were:
    1.great thick nice socks.
    2.nice work out type clothes. my mom had lots of vistors and she wasn’t really up to getting dressed dressed and felt self conscience about wearing pjs in front of people so she plurged on a lot of like warm up type clothes. yoga pants with matching zip up jackets and such.
    3.most hospitals have a look good feel good program (or a similar name). it really made my mom feel great. and participants get a heck of a lot of good loot.
    4.a really nice best top of the line wig. my mom personally hated all the headscarves and such. said it just invited people to feel sorry for her.
    and for you i’d say when you need it take time away. it’s hard seeing your mother suffer. and at times you’re going to have to be the mother and she the child. if you don’t get a break from all that every once in awhile you’ll be no good to her. so take care of yourself too. do whatever it is that helps you relieve stress. and release any guilt you may have about pampering yourself.
    being in a good place yourself is the best thing you can do for her.
    you’ll be in my thoughts.

  • cce

    April 27, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    I know it may seem a world away but by this time next year you and your Mom will be through all this and having fun coming up with a name for your breast cancer walkathon team (we decided on Walking Abreast).
    A good book for your Mom right now is Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.
    Wishing your Mom luck and wellness.

  • Sarah Marie

    April 27, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Thankfully no one close to me has ever had to go through chemo and lose their hair. I’ve always kinda admired the “F*CK CANCER” knit caps that I’ve seen around, which provide a smidge of humor with a tiny twinge of anger. Just my two cents. All the best to your mom and your family, and to all of the survivors/victims of cancer!

  • Chunky Photojournalist Barbie

    April 28, 2007 at 2:03 am

    Several years ago, I had a very serious life-threatening illness (not cancer) that lasted about eight months.
    My boyfriend gave me “Big Trouble,” a fiction novel by humor writer Dave Barry. IT. IS. HILARIOUS. And kind of mindless and not in any way, shape or form about relevant topics, which is why I’m telling you about it. It was the only thing that made me smile during that time. (And I had a puppy. Just sayin.’)
    I worked with Dave for a little while at the Miami Herald about a year or two after my recovery, and I told him how much his book helped me take my mind off things. As I’m trying to pay him this compliment, he said, “So when you didn’t want to think anymore, you read my booK?” And I had to be like, “Erm… yes?” and he said, “Excellent. That’s why I wrote it.”
    Anyway, if you, or your mom or your sisters need something truly mindless to occupy you, read “Big Trouble.” There are no heroines with bad bosses and unworthy men (thought I do love me some chick lit), no mother-daughter drama, no cancer, no larger meaning about God and the Universe. There is, however, a character who accidentally eats a poisonous frog and hallucinates that a Golden retriever is actually Elizabeth Dole with glowing red eyes.
    In all seriousness, my thoughts are with you and your family. My mantras during my illness were “one foot in front of the other” and “If you’re going through Hell, KEEP GOING.” Take things one hour at a time if you have to. You got this; you’re strong; you can do this; I promise.

  • Melissa

    April 30, 2007 at 9:59 am

    Although many people think massages are great, we couldn’t do anything soothing like that until my aunt’s skin healed from radiation. So we offered manicures (there are services that will come to the house). Maybe your mom has a favorite chemo/radiation appropriate spa treatment?
    Head scarves, lots of ’em in pretty colors.
    We went all out and got a cashmere robe and blanket. Something similarly warm/comfy would be great. Why they keep hospital rooms so cold is beyond me.
    Designate a person or two the “news sharer.” Everyone wants to check in and see how the person is faring, but all those phone calls are exhausting and can be depressing/annoying. We made a private web page and gave family the log-in for updates on treatment.

  • Peggasus

    May 1, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    My Mom had a lumpectomy 10 years ago, along with removal of a number of lymph nodes. Afterwards, she had radiation over a 3 month period.
    The cancer came back, and she had a mastectomy last September (same breast). One thing I didn’t know was that one can only have a certain amount of radiation in a lifetime, so that was not an option again, so she had chemo for four months. One good thing her oncologist mentioned was that the chemo drugs have come a long way, and not everyone loses their hair (my mom did not). That, of course, depends on the particular cocktail they mix up for each person.
    They had her go in for a white-cell boosting shot a week before each treatment. She did develop a rash after each time, but that was taken care of with Benadryl. She would be fatigued for a day or two after each one, and then would be just fine. (I know, we’re very lucky.)
    After surgery, she couldn’t drive for a few weeks. One reason was trouble turning her head because of the pain of the scar, and also because they said the anaesthesia can stay in your body for some time. so if you don’t live in the area, she might need rides to and from appointments.
    Two of my brothers stayed with her during the operation (I live several hours away), but she said she would rather have me to stay with her after she got home. And as she was told to not lift anything or go downstairs for several weeks, I was there to help cook, vacuum, fetch things, help with changing the dressings, go to the store, etc. And after a week when I went home, she had plenty of friends to help her out (she is a widow).
    Anyway, it sounds like your mom has plenty of people around willing and waiting to help in any way possible. And we are glass half-full sort of people, as you appear to be (Boob Voyage! Genius!), so I will believe that your mother will be just fine too. The power of positive thinking and all.
    Best wishes to your mom for a speedy recovery!

  • Meghan

    May 24, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Almost a month later I am still receiving visits at my site from the wonderful and kind women (and men!) who frequent this site. My head is still spinning, and I have every intention to thank the people who have reached out personally to me, but I just wanted to leave a little thank you here for any readers who might stumble upon the archives and are reading this all for the first time. Since I wrote the email that was posted above my mom has completed her surgery (bilateral mastectomy) and the pathology report showed that the lump was stage 2B (stage 2 because of the size, 4cm, and B because the sentinal lymph node was positive for cancer). She will begin chemo on June 7th.
    She opted for a more radical treatment for several reasons:
    1.)her fair skin is so sensitive that she gets sun poisioning from only a few minutes of sun exposure, and she knew that the radiation that went with the lumpectomy option would be murder on her skin.
    2.) she knew in her gut that the lump was bigger than they thought. It was growing, and fast. After surgery they said they were glad she’d gone with the mastectomy because the lump was so large and they remoeved so much tissue that they would not have been as prepared to deal with her deflated little boobs as they were, since they set off with the mastectomy from the beginning. (The real scary part: she was told over and over that the mammogram she had after finding the lump would have likely been read as ‘normal’ had it been an annual check instead of her requesting the testing. Trust your bodies, ladies, you know when something’s not right, and make sure that you’re heard!)
    3.)she had the bilateral mastectomy because this type of cancer tends to mirror in the other breast (not spread, but just appear in the same place. whatever conditions that were present to have the first lump appear were also there for the other breast, and this way she wouldn’t give cancer the chance to come back. She would be going in for MRIs every 4-6 months for the rest of her life to watch the other breast, and this way she won’t have the constant fear that it will show up again.
    4.) she found an amazing doctor that worked as a team with a plastic surgeon, so she had one long (7+ hour) surgery that was started by the general surgeon to remove all of the cancerous tissue (and non-cancerous tissue in the other breast) and then the plastics guy finished the surgery, putting in two saline expanders and stitching her up. She’s has an appointment today (May 24) to get her first ‘fill up’ and once they are filled to the point she likes, they will remove the expanders, put in permanent implants, and the doctor will work his magic to finish reconstructing.
    My mother turned 50 this past Monday (May 21) and our celebration was small but incredibly grateful.
    It has been a LONG and HARD journey for everyone. But we are strong women, we have a great family that has been a constant support for each other, and we KNOW that we will be ok. It sucks a lot right now, and some days are fine and others are completely heartbreaking, but day by day, we are still here. On Mother’s Day we (my sisters, aunts, and friends participated in a local breast cancer walk and it was incredibly empowering. My mom attended (but did not do the walk, she’s not quite that strong yet) and I think it was a positive experience for everyone. We all felt like we were doing something when most of the time we feel so helpless.
    Thank you all again so much, if you have been reading my site you know that there is a lot more besides cancer going on in our life, so I haven’t had a chance yet to send out emails to those who have written me personally, but once I have a reliable internet connection you are all at the top of my list.
    Thank you again, everyone. The amazing outpour of support has been overwhelming, and I have shared it all with my mom. I think it has helped her to see that I have a support system, she can concentrate on herself and not worry that she’s putting too much stress on her children. Thank you all.