I. The Diagnosis
He eats healthy and is tall and athletic. She was a 3.5-year-old toddler who is full of energy and full of laughter. They have so much in common, from their deep brown eyes to the way they walk. Their commonalities do not just end there. As of November 2015, they both share a cancer diagnosis. They are both members of my immediate family.
In 1993, when my 3.5-year-old daughter Caitlin was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, my world imploded. How does a 3.5-year-old get cancer? Caitlin just learned how to ride a two-wheeler bicycle. Our family was just finalizing plans to visit Disney World. Now: cancer?
Fast-forward 22 years. My eldest daughter, Caitlin, has long since triumphed over insurmountable odds. I have long since traded in chatting with doctors in white lab coats before chemotherapy for chatting with fellow mothers in red minivans before soccer practice. It would come as a shock, then, when news came in November 2015 that my husband Paul has Stage 4 lung cancer.
Again: the questions.
How does a healthy man get lung cancer if he doesn’t smoke?
Where did this come from?
Were there signs I might’ve missed?
Just weeks ago, we finished a 100-mile bike ride with our daughter Deirdre. Paul was the one pushing me to finish. “Just around the corner, you can do it, we are almost there.”
After a routine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, the doctor tells him, “You have a malignancy.” Paul nearly collapses to the floor, yet turns instead to the doctor and apologizes. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to tell someone they have cancer,” Paul consoles. At that moment, we must embark on a road that seems eerily familiar. How do we provide each other with strength when we witnessed our daughter nearly die from this disease so many years ago? How do I comfort him when we have no idea what type of cancer plagues his body? How do I hold him up when we have witnessed so many children die from this retched disease and the news is littered with famous celebrities all succumbing to this insidious disease. We all know someone, right?
The process of receiving a diagnosis begins with a CT scan (nodules on the lung, the liver, and the arm) biopsy procedure (lung), PET scan (lit up like a Christmas Tree), to brain MRI tests (oh look: we found another lesion). Each visit brings more bad news and the process of scheduling medical procedures is even more difficult during the holiday season. Finally, we meet with our friend — an oncologist — who says the words no one wants to hear. Stage 4 lung cancer. It is not curable but treatable. Again the news is grim and having a friend you’ve known for 20 years break the news to you makes you appreciate the job doctors must do every day. How do doctors constantly remain upbeat in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds? One word: hope. We nearly lost our daughter to this dreaded disease and now we are facing a battle to save her dad. All we can cling to is hope. The hope that the researchers will continue to find new treatment options that could stop the cancer cells lurking in my husband’s body and the bodies of so many other cancer patients. If Vice President Joe Biden wants to send a moonshot to cure cancer that is fine by me because we all know someone, right?
Now how do we tell our five children their father has cancer? The task comes down to a family dinner during the holidays. Paul reveals the news and starts by apologizing to all of us. “I am so sorry,” he admits over sobs. Paul is upset that he has to break the news to our five children that he has a dreadful disease. Paul is upset that he has to break the news to our five children that their lives will now change. Shock and disbelief paint their faces. The boys fall silent. The girls rally with a positive chorus of, “You’ve got this Dad — we will beat this.” Caitlin is especially emphatic. “Dad, you’ve got this beat.” Thoughts of friends, colleagues and neighbors who have fought valiantly but who still have lost their battle cross my mind. We all know someone, right?
We begin by entering a world we thought we had shut the door on and never wanted to enter again. This world is filled with appointments, oncologists, radiologists, lab technicians, pharmacists, nurses, nurse practitioners, and insurance companies. Suddenly your time is not run on your own schedule, but run on someone else’s schedule. This world is marked by the remarkable ability of our children as they create new roles for themselves as executive assistants, organizers and prayer warriors. This world features questions like “how do you feel?” that have no appropriate answer. This world presents new challenges every day. Most of all, this world unleashes a new determination within yourself to find a cure for this awful disease. We all know someone, right?
My husband and I have a positive team of doctors rallying around us who are all anxious to find a cure. The doctors have hope and if they don’t they aren’t on our team. The friends and neighbors who supply food, cards, prayers, and of words of encouragement help us every day in ways they may not even realize. Now they too know someone.
As we face this uphill climb, we stare at an uncertain future of job uncertainty, health uncertainty, and a daily struggle to remain positive despite the odds. Perhaps it is my turn to guide him. Perhaps it is my turn to encourage him to continue to fight this beast and push him toward the finish line. “You can do this, just around the corner, we are almost there.” We will fight to survive because after all we all know someone and this beast must be tamed.
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