when you get The News…
The person I love has cancer.
These are words that seem to spell an inevitable end to many, a death sentence from which there is no return, a statement that everyone nervously skirts around at a get-together. For those who have not experienced a loved one stricken with cancer, there is a disconnect, a mental, “duh”. When my wife and I received the initial diagnosis of cancer, my heart sank. I was convinced that I was going to lose the person I love, the person I had spent the last 20 years with. My wife was going to die. Soon.
Note: When I activated this post, I neglected to mention my friends who have lost their life partners to cancer. I do not know the pain and anguish that they experienced, or their feelings of helplessness as they watched the life slowly drain from the person that they had dedicated their souls to. I cannot imagine the sheer loss, sadness and frustration that they must still feel. I can only tell my story and what my wife and I have endured. All I have to offer my friends is the message that I hope they treasure the good moments that they had with their life partners. For now, I watch my wife wither a little bit every day, but I revel in the moments when she is with me, unfettered by the painkillers, sound of mind and once again the woman that I promised to honor and cherish until death do us part. She is the person who I call every day from work, her life; the garden I tend every day, the soul I sometimes cry for when I am alone; the one I would gladly sacrifice myself for, just to rid her forever of the cancer that has stricken her, our modern day plague.
6 years ago – 2014.
Time can be a brutal teacher, sometimes. I have heard that time can heal all wounds. The passage of time brought about my declaration of war against depression, denial and loss in relation to cancer. I fight for the one I love, no matter barriers, no matter the cost.
It has been 6 years since I took my wife into the emergency room for back pain so excruciating that she could not sit down. It was in that room that the 20-ish Emergency Room physician conducted a number of tests; the last, an X-Ray. It was not long before the doctor returned to tell us that there were a number of masses in the X-Ray.
My wife immediately broke out in tears, exclaiming why her former husband could not have had her results instead of her. She was devastated. I didn’t know what to say. I just patted her on her back, put my arm around her shoulder and told her everything was going to be okay. All the while, I was fighting back tears. A thought seemed to rebound in my mind. I’m going to lose her.
Hindsight does wonders.
There were several moments on that night that could have made the stark news that the Emergency Room doctor gave us. The first thing the young doctor could have done was to give us some kind of reassurance, regardless of whether the doctor may have felt it was pointless or not.
it is not the end of their existence.
The doctor noticed masses covering my wife’s abdomen and brought it to her attention. At the time, the doctor knew as much as we did. The mind is an amazing thing, and like a weapon, can harm or heal. When truth (or facts) are blatantly revealed, it can slice into a person’s will to live as deeply and as surely as any scalpel. The soul is wounded and can be left with indelible scars that last for the lifetime of the person who it is revealed to.
I sometimes wish that the E.R. doctor thought about what the stark truth could do to my wife’s psyche. Sure, the patient needs to know the truth, but come into the conversation armed with news that balances the truth, regardless of whether it is mired in fact or not. I feel that in our world today, many young healthcare professionals (not all professionals in healthcare, mind you) allow themselves to become jaded in a very short amount of time. Facts and truth are all important treasures to be laid at their patient’s feet.
Offerings however, may not be perceived in the same light as the person who gives the presents. Hell, even in retail, gift receipts are offered, so that a customer can exchange what has been purchased for something more to their “palate”. Information however, may or may not be perceived as a gift. It is a “Pandora’s Box” that once opened, could be filled with depression, sadness or pestilence. Perhaps the healthcare professional needs training to develop compassion, or communication skills to offer “hope” for their patients, when the news is as bad as what my wife received that night.
There are many, many healthcare professionals who regularly display compassion to their patients. I have seen proof of compassionate professionals again and again since my wife and I have traveled the road that is paved with cancer. As a spouse who has observed the person I love go from feeling great to feeling despondent and suicidal the next day, I feel that the gift to help patients heal from the inside out is should be primary in the evolution of cancer care.
There are days I feel that I myself, jumped over a chasm of doubt and sadness that I could have fallen into easily. Fortunately, I have a sister who convinced me early during my period of sadness and dread that I needed to be strong for my wife – to exude confidence in her ability to defeat her cancer, rather than succumb to it. That period of training myself to become more composed and unflappable did not come easily. There were days when I had to excuse myself from my wife’s presence so that I could cry alone.
The Worst Thing that Could have Happened
The worst thing that my wife felt when she began her chemotherapy, was the loss of her hair. Despite the fact that she received a prohibitively expensive wig made of real human hair, as well as the loss of all facial hair (eyebrows, etc.), nothing else came close to her fear. My wife fell into a deep state of depression when she lost her hair. No matter what I said, no matter how beautiful I told her she looked, her mood would sour every time she glanced into the mirror. It was not until her chemotherapy ended that her mood improved and her state of well being improved.
has our world become dispassionate?
Despite my statements, I don’t feel that we collectively, have lost our ability to feel compassion for those in need. I did however, experience a difference in the office cultures of two cancer centers, both part of the same organization. The cancer center my wife loves to visit always seems to have staff who are happy, energetic and project a feeling of hope. The other cancer center gave me the feeling that they looked upon the I see regular displays of people helping other people, people sacrificing their personal safety for strangers every day.
I do however, believe that like the soldier who experiences PTSD on the battlefield, healthcare professionals may develop a “thick skin” to cope with the sight of horrific injuries, helping victims of cancer and other diseases cope with the deterioration of their or the erosion of what were rock-solid relationships that can occur between couples when faced with major decisions that must be made when coping with potentially life-threatening diseases such as cancer.
I can imagine the need for a healthcare professional to insulate their own thoughts and feelings, not to mention their own sanity, so that they can accomplish their daily job with standards they have set for themselves, not to mention greeting their patients with a happy or peaceful look on their face and a certain level of panache.
The Importance of Trust and Faith
I feel that it is very important for your loved one to be in an office where they feel that those who care for them, have their interest at heart. For anyone to have a physician who appears aloof or non-caring, regardless whether or not the physician truly does care about the patient, I believe that trust must be implicit as part of their recovery regimen.
My wife relies on her oncologist; not only to keep her spirits up but holds her physician up as a rock solid foundation of belief that she is going to continue to live. Her oncologist is a personal touchstone who supports my wife’s belief that her cancer will soon be eradicated. Her oncologist is very different from the award-winning, “I love me wall” all-around, aloof-sounding, “hero” oncologist she was assigned to a year ago for new, ground-breaking gene therapy treatments.
The new oncologist had all the answers about how the new treatments would work. We both felt that the oncologist who treated her had a very different personality than her regular oncologist. His attitude was more daunting and definitely patronizing. He decided to start my wife as a candidate in a treatment program from China. I heard many patients lauding the “hero” oncologist with honor and praise, but my wife preferred her oncologist. She missed her oncologist, terribly. I felt for my wife. I personally felt that she was nothing more than a lab rat for the award-winning oncologist, someone to use in a control study, rather than someone to care about as a patient. Whether my wife’s oncologist had all the answers or not, I felt that the person my wife has seen for over 5 years now, cares very much for her and has her survival as a cancer patient in mind. I feel that my wife’s oncologist is “hero” enough for her.
Complications of Cancer
Needless to say, the award-winning oncologist did not have an opportunity to prove his mettle to my wife. 8 months ago, my wife shattered her cancerous hip as she left the cancer center following a blood test. Her accident resulted in the loss of a job that she coveted, along with benefits that many in our country do not receive. After 3 months and 2 surgeries in and out of the hospital, my wife lives in a quasi-coherent existence of pain killers and muscle relaxant medications. During her rational state, my wife burns with a desire to work again, perhaps share her specialized knowledge of reading EKG strips for the past 20 years. I live with the hope that my wife will one day be free of the painkillers and that one day, I will once again, have the clear-headed, highly-opinionated woman that I married by my side.