My Mom, My Angel - A Son's View of Fighting Cancer

by Layne Compston

Our guest blog post today is from Layne Compston, he is the Son of Laura Compston, "LCompston", a 2-time head and neck cancer survivor covering 32 years. His post gives a Son's view of fighting cancer.

Laura And Layne Compston

Growing up as an only child had its benefits. For example, I didn’t have to share my toys with anyone. My mom and dad always made sure I had plenty to open when it came to certain holidays such as Christmas. I always remembered having many presents under the tree. My parents would always go above and beyond to get me almost everything I asked for on my Christmas list, within reason of course. It wasn’t easy for my parents to make this happen, my dad was a truck driver making decent wages but working hard to do so. Now my mom was also known for working hard. For as long as I can remember, she has always had two jobs. They varied over the course of my childhood, but no matter what my mom would have her career going and to bring home more money, she would always have a side job making extra. On top of that, she helped run the household. Being young I had no idea the amount of effort and strength that it took to provide for a family the way my parents did. I certainly didn’t realize at that age how much more strength my mom had to have to be doing even half of the things she had been doing all her adult life.

At a young age, I learned my mom was more “fragile” than most people. She could easily damage her face or get severe whiplash, and it is permanent that way. If a bone was to break on my mom’s face, it would most likely never heal. That’s a scary thought to have waking up every day knowing if you fell and hit your face or got in a car accident, it’s a guarantee it’s going to hurt you worse than most. Also, my mom must use her hand to assist her head to get up from laying down. I’ve observed this over the years and to watch someone that is labeled as “fragile’; someone who should wake up every day and be nervous to drive or fall wrong, just to wake up conquer the day. It’s the most inspiring and motivation thing and I get to see it almost every day.

All my life people have been worried about my mom, especially my dad and grandmother. They worry about everything she does. They love her dearly and know the severity of everything she’s been through. Me on the other hand, I’ve always looked at her differently. I forget how threatening a lot of things should seem to her because she’s never shown me any sign of fear. She’s always been a literal super-mom. You can ask any of my friends which mom brought all the food and Gatorade to every little sporting event we had. The mom that would drive me and all my friends anywhere we wanted to go. My mom did it all. She worked two jobs and made it to every event I had in school. She taught me how to ride a horse and she motivates me every day by helping me to realize you can do anything you set your mind to.

For everyone who doesn’t know my mom, she was diagnosed with Stage III Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma cancer at the age of seventeen, the summer before her Senior year of high school. This type of cancer is extremely rare and commonly found in Asia in elderly people and my mom was neither. She told me when she found out she was determined to beat it and that’s exactly what she did. 

Laura And Donnie Compston

After extensive radiation and chemotherapy, my mom would beat cancer for over thirty years. It didn’t come with a gold medal and an easy life after defeating it. But she got what she fought hard for and that was her life. Years after the radiation settled in, my moms face began to change. She used to have a plump face, as she would call it, but over the years the radiation has slowly made her face and head smaller and smaller. That includes all the features of her head and neck. Resulting in many more issues over the next thirty years. It started slowly and progresses faster and faster as the years have gone on. 

In my mom’s early twenties and thirties, she would drink Dr. Pepper every day and thought nothing of it. As the years would come along, she had to get rid of all soda from her diet. She then turned to sweet tea and that was her drink of choice anywhere she went. More time went on and the doctors would start recommending more water. Now we get to today's time and she can’t drink or eat anything at all. Nothing can enter her mouth unless she uses a spray bottle lightly spraying water in her mouth to moisten her mouth and throat. Over the years, this was just one of many of the changes that would occur in my mom’s life.

In my adolescent years, I would watch my mom transform into the fighter she is today; and with all the stories I heard about how she was so strong at seventeen, made more and more sense to me. I would watch her take anyone’s doubt into ultimate belief. The doctors were always astounded at her attitude towards everything. After her first battle with cancer, my mom went on living life. She was working at n Advertising agency during the week and waitressing at a truck stop on weekends when she met my dad. Since that day my parents have been in each other’s lives and always by each other’s side. 

Head And Neck Cancer Awarreness Week

The doctors told my mom early on she would never be able to have kids, as a woman that’s a devastating thing to process. But my mom never gave up, and after a couple failed attempts she had me. I have been told, of course, that was no cake walk. She was sick her entire pregnancy and her body fought hard to not keep any nutritious food down. When she finally delivered me after a day or two of being in labor, I fell into the doctor’s hands not breathing and black and blue. I was even dry because I had come two weeks late. This terrified my mom after going through a miscarriage previously. The doctors began to resuscitate me and successfully got me breathing and after weeks in the NICU my mom and I were released and once again my mom beat the odds.

My mom would come to face many differences in life after the result of her first battle with cancer. When I was around eight years old, my mom got sick with Cellulitis for the first time. Cellulitis is an infection that can be deadly if not treated quickly and properly. My mom obtained the infection from getting a root canal done. 

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We were out trail riding horseback at the C-bar ranch like I said early nothing stopped my mom from doing what she wanted to do. Even if that meant riding an animal that at any point could spook and she could fall off and get hurt. My Dad and I would go with her and I would ride the trails with her and we would sleep in her horse trailer camping out. On this specific night, we noticed my moms face getting red blotches on it, we watched it carefully and the next morning it had spread and would eventually spread to half her body. 

We rushed her to the trusted hospital that has saved her life before, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Still being very young, I had no real concept of just how serious this infection was so going to Houston was different to me. I would go see my mom in the hospital and she never once looked nervous. She always had this brave happy face that reassured me she would do as she always has and fight head on to beat the challenge ahead. So, watching her enter this massive submarine looking device, called the hyperbaric chamber, was just me watching my mom go on an adventure. 

Of course, I knew my mom was sick and I would always make her cards and bring her Gund teddy bears, but I was never nervous about losing her. She would always make it seem like what she was doing was never scary and was going to help her get better. I just watched in amazement as she defeated this infection and just kept pushing on. Though beating the infection wasn’t the only challenge, the job she worked at let her go after having to be in Houston in the hospital for a few months while on medical leave. I watched in the back seat as my dad's face grew with anger and my mom with tears in her eyes told him to drive on and she would find something else.

Layne And Kids

My mom would go years and only have one more smaller case of Cellulitis from another root canal. She then learned she had to consult with M.D. Anderson before ever having anyone work done on her head and neck. As the years passed, life went on as normal……normal for our family at least. I would make it through high school and my mom had her things that she did differently than others, but no real issues.

Getting older, I would observe my mom more and watched how she ate and drank. I also watched how she conquered every day, as it was surely not promised. As the years passed, eating was something my mom would struggle with more every day. She would use tons of butter and liquids to help get down even the smallest bites of meat. She burnt bacon till it would fall apart in her mouth, just so she could get the taste. It was hard for her to accept that eating was getting more difficult. She would do anything she had to do to eat and feel “normal”. It was hard for her to eat though. She sometimes would have to chew the food, swallow it, cough it back up and try again because it would get stuck in her throat. She coughed a lot when she ate, and I could tell she was self-conscious of it. I made sure to be on the lookout for anyone to say something to her. I was a momma’s boy all the way and no one was going to mess with her. When I was eight, I kicked a kid in the chest for talking about my mom when she was sick with Cellulitis the first time. I didn’t like my mom being messed with and she was always so grateful for me standing up for her. Being different in any way is hard and for my mom, she was glad to have me and my dad by her side.

Today, my mom’s life s nothing like it has ever been. She uses a feeding tube for any food or drinks that she needs for nourishment and people can barely understand most of the words that come out of her mouth. She has been without a job for the past two years and this has been extremely hard for someone who has always had two jobs. Her whole life has been abruptly turned around and the world she once knew was brought to a halt. 

Head And Neck Cancer Awareness Month April

This is due to her running into yet another rare form of cancer, Saliva Gland Cancer. This time the cancer was on the left side of her neck right under her jaw. It happened in the blink of an eye. My mom showed me a small swollen lymph node under her jaw. The next thing I know, they are sending her to M.D. Anderson and the results come back as cancer. 

At twenty-four years old now and understanding the severity of it all, I can admit I was terrified. My mom had been doing great, but her head and neck had shrunk more over the years and we knew she was more of a risk for any treatment. By knowing just that small part I was nervous. Little did I know that to beat this cancer, she was going to have to go through even more than she had in any of the years prior. 

To defeat this cancer radiation was the only way to kill it. Chemotherapy does not work on this type of cancer. Now for the average patient, that would be good news and your only question is when do you start, but for my mom, it was much more of a dilemma. She couldn’t simply radiate the area that was affected, her neck was too thin to undergo the radiation. Plus she had already had that area radiated with her first battle with cancer. If they were to radiate her neck their biggest concern was that it would penetrate too far through the skin and focus on the carotid artery and she might possibly bleed out. 

Laura Surgery

At that point, my mom was like someone at work questioning the doctors, if that’s not something we can do, then what is something we can do. Forcing the doctors to think outside the box, they came up with a very lengthy surgery that had many risks and was something my mom might not pull through. But if they were to successfully do it, they could kill all the cancer. With odds against my mom, she fearlessly told the doctors do what they had to do to get her better. 

The surgery was a ten-hour long surgery. This radical neck dissection would result in the doctors taking muscle from a ten-inch incision on her thigh and two important veins from her wrist and placing all of that on her neck after they pulled the skin back and removed the cancerous tumors. Leaving my mom with the muscle exposed on her thin neck. Knowing all of this, my mom was still adamant about doing the surgery because it was the only way. 

Laura And Husband

The day of the surgery, I had work and I was a wreck. I was calling my dad every hour, trying to find out any information. So many thoughts were going through my head. My mom had just been blessed with my two sons, her grandsons and she still had so much life to live. This surgery can’t get the best of her I thought to myself. 

It didn’t. I got a call that night from dad telling me everything was okay, and she was in recovery. Dad and I were so relieved, but that didn’t end her journey, it began her new journey.

Mom woke up to the doctors telling her that it's going to be six weeks before she will be able to walk again and another six weeks at least till she can move her head. She was then explained her feeding tube process and how her tongue would slowly over time stop functioning completely. Talking was going to be a major issue and over time she might lose that completely. They are concerned that her jawbone is deteriorating at a fast rate and may break soon as well. There were so many concerns and what if’s and do you know what my mom decides to do? She gives it maybe a week and she’s asking my dad to help her get in the walker because she wants to try and walk. My dad was furious. He wasn’t about to have her try walking right now because they just removed muscle from her leg. But if you know my mom, its either you’re going to help her get to where she needs or wants to go or she’s going to do it without you. 

So eventually my dad gave in and I get a call informing that my mom has been making laps around the nurses’ station every day and going further and further every time. Even the doctors were amazed. That’s when I fully realized that once again cancer could not defeat my mom, she wasn’t going to let it. The hardest part for my mom I think, had to be having the muscle just sitting under her jaw. She was so worried about people seeing it and what people would think. I remembered being at her bedside at the hospital and she’s in tears only in front of me explaining how she felt. She was nervous my children wouldn’t know what to think and how they would react. That’s when I had to remind her just how beautiful she was and how amazing she was and that no matter what, my dad, my children, and I will always love her and never think anything of it. Realizing at that moment that even the strongest warriors need reassurance from time to time. With that reassurance, she wiped her tears away and hugged me and we began to talk about when she was going to be released. 

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Once my mom was released from the hospital she had to lead a new life of eating through a tube and getting comfortable with doing that in front of other people. She is having to learn how to deal with her speech problems and coping with people ignoring her or not understanding her. This year it really made me see that this has been the hardest time for her. Every other time she had been sick, just beating cancer or an infection was enough and she would go back leading her normal life. 

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Now her life was different. She was laid off a few months before finding out about her cancer returning, and after she was back from the treatment she was unable to find a job due to her speech and eating differently 7 times a day. She applied to hundreds of jobs a week and all denying her. My mom is fully qualified and capable to take on any task thrown at her, sure she might be living a new life in certain ways, but she was still that same woman that could take on anything. So, with many failed attempts at finding a job, I could tell my mom felt lost.

Then one day she started going to speech therapy because it was getting so hard for her and her speech therapist mentioned joining a support group. My mom went to some support groups in Dallas and really enjoyed not being the only one hard to understand or the only one having to eat their food from a tube. This gave her the idea to start a Facebook page for cancer survivors and caregivers so people could have a place to come ask questions or vent about what they are going through and talk to other people who can relate. I recently started getting more involved with my mom by being her voice when other people can’t understand her. Talking on the phone is really not a good option so if she needs to call someone, I do it for her. I’ve even changed out her feeding tube as scary as that sounds.

Our latest journey is that we are working on a cancer support group ministry to provide more than just a place to vent for people. We hope by having this ministry, we can help meet the needs of others. All in all, I truly believe my mom has begun to find her purpose in life. For the longest, God’s path for her had put her through a lot of traumatic events, but as that old saying God gives his toughest battles to his strongest Angels and that is no exaggeration here. Through all that trauma my mom is able to show that with faith and a will to never give up and never give in, she can keep living to see her son she was never supposed to have, raise the grandchildren she thought she would never have and she can help people understand that giving up is no option. That’s my mom, my Angel.

Related Articles on Head and Neck Cancer Issues

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Some common side effects of radiation treatment for head and neck cancer that we are often not told about. 

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