Saturday, May 05, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0527 - Living with, and possibly dying from, cancer

One of the cancer blogs I read daily is called My Cancer by Leroy Sievers of NPR. Leroy is battling metastatic colon cancer. A couple days ago he wrote about the specter of death (Leroy will be interviewed by Ted Koppel on Living with Cancer on the Discovery Channel tomorrow night at 6:00 pm). One of his messages was,

“I think the biggest thing that separates us from the people who don't live in cancer world is not the pain, not the treatments, not the fear or sadness. It's that we have a pretty good idea of what's going to kill us, and a pretty good idea of when that might happen. Some of the mystery is taken away.”

A year ago today, I was released from hospital for the third time after my surgery on March 28th. I was weak, afraid, vulnerable, and wondering whether it would be hours, days, weeks, months, or possibly years before I was admitted into hospital again. There were times in the hospital bed when I felt as though death was staring me directly in the face, when I wondered if my wife and I would ever have time to plan retirement together, if I would ever see my sons married and starting their own families, if I would ever be able to think about ordinary things again. Death was my constant companion, it seemed.

Death didn't seem, as Leroy says, very mysterious to me at all. I knew its perfume. I knew what its shadow looked like. I knew a little of its icy touch.

If you had happened to visit me at that time, and if you had thought to comfort me by talking about life after death, the joys of heaven, and the safety of being in the arms of God ... well, it wouldn't have provided any comfort at all. It would have been, at best, a pleasing fantasy ... pleasing to you maybe.

Today, one year later, I still find absolutely no comfort in themes of life after death. But I've touched the elephant in the room from trunk to tail and think I have a pretty good grasp of the many perspectives of the various blind men describing that elephant.

If I were to visit you in a hospital bed as you too fought cancer and wondered about the specter, guaranteed I wouldn't talk about heaven and hell and safety in the bosom of the Lord. No, I'd take a far simpler and, I think, more honest approach. I'd listen and tell you something about my own experiences, if it was apparent that you really wanted to hear about them. I'd watch you carefully for signs of fatigue and for hints about what I could offer in the moment. Maybe a glass of water, maybe help flagging down a nurse for your meds to be delivered on time, instead of thirty minutes late.

If it made sense at the time, we might talk about hope, about treatment, about your family, about all the good things that make our lives worth living in the first place. I'd make the visit short, but I'd promise to see you again tomorrow.

I can't be there for her, but I wish I could do those things for my aunt right now as she rests in a hospital bed out west. Two days ago, her pathology report came back positive for cancer in the lymph node in her groin, the biopsy being taken during her surgery when part of her foot was amputated for an aggressive melanoma.

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary, recalling last year at this time, wondering if I will ever feel normal again (something which doesn't seem to be happening with the continuing neuropathy in my feet, rectal bleeding at the strangest times, and almost omnipresent discomfort in my bottom), but so thankful that we have had another year together. And the prospects for yet another year together in reasonably good health look good. That in itself would be a comfort to my aunt, seeing me recovering and thinking about the future. That would definitely comfort her. That's just the kind of woman she is.

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