Do you remember where you were during September of 2001? When asked this question, many immediately think of a day known as 9/11. For my family and me September 24, 2001 is the date painfully etched into our memories. This is the date my husband received the diagnosis of stage four rectal cancer. Life changes drastically when someone you love hears that he or she has cancer. This six-letter word suddenly becomes very personal to everyone involved. The insulting, gut-wrenching, invading disease moved into my children’s and my life swiftly, we all learned that illness, and death knocks on everyone’s door at some point in life. The familiar words “only the good die young” were not so amusing any longer.
Initially I anticipated my husband facing recovery from hemorrhoid surgery. For those women who have been or are married to the common male, most know that recovery from a head cold can be traumatic. I knew that hemorrhoid surgery was not going to be a piece of cake for my husband. Of course, I did not expect a life-threatening cancerous growth to be just inside the sphincter muscle of the rectum either.
We entered the white, sterile hospital room to begin preparations for my husband’s colonoscopy, which included removal of any hemorrhoids found. The procedure was going to be quick, simple, and I just needed to be there to drive him home. I waited across the hall from the outpatient surgery area in a waiting room. No more than twenty minutes passed, when the face of our surgeon appeared through the open doorway. His ashen face stuck out from behind the light green scrub colored attire. His face grimaced when he reached to shake my hand and lead me to a small chapel down the hall. Suddenly I felt my legs weaken and I knew at that moment I was glad my father had decided to sit with me at the hospital. He followed his youngest child down the hall to hear the surgery findings and the eventual fate of his son-in-law as well.
None of the three individuals sitting painfully still in the hospital chapel could have expected to be discussing the anticipated short future of my 39-year old normally healthy husband.
Our surgeon had given him a death sentence, serving as judge, jury, and executioner. I asked the doctor if he had spoken with my husband and he said that he had, he would not say how much he would remember or understood due to anesthesia. I was not sure if I wanted to see him or talk with him yet. I did not know what my reaction would be or even should be. Sorrowful feelings for him, our children, his mom and dad, brothers, and sister flooded my already beaten body. My mind kept spinning like a merry-go-round with no stop button.
Following the first of two colonoscopies, I remember going home with my husband and resting before our children got home from their day at school and daycare. We talked, worried, and held each other until we both woke to the idea that everything we had heard earlier in the day was just a misunderstanding or bad dream. We could not have possibly heard the doctor correctly, a tumor…cancer…how could this be? The sun was still shining and the calendar indicated the next day would be our oldest son’s 19th birthday.
Those first few days become a blur, constant flurry of motion, moving from one day of life to another. The general surgeon referred us to this doctor, who sent us upstairs to the radiologist, he suggested meeting with the radiation oncologist, which in turn put us in contact with the hematology/oncologist. The “gist” I was getting was the pain my husband was suffering from in his lower extremity had spread to my entire body.
Raised in a two-parent, middle-class household, rural farming community, I do not recall bad things happening to anyone. My description of my childhood would be a cross between Leave It to Beaver and The Waltons. My parents were normally in good health so my husband’s diagnosis was so devastating it was nearly too much to ascertain. Cancer was something I read about in the newspaper or hearing of an acquaintance in the community suffering with the disease.
Decisions were made regarding my husband’s treatment and we relied completely on the doctors’ suggestions. I became very acquainted with Google and Yahoo search engines scanning for any information available about future options. At this point after the diagnosis, my husband and I truly believed we had a future. We held to our beliefs and trusted the upcoming chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery were all going to work like a Kansas tornado. We had hopes that this cancer would be just a distant nightmare in the years to come.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers the description for the word diagnosis as the art, or act of identifying a disease from its signs and symptoms. My personal definition of diagnosis lies somewhere between defiance and death. We are all born with the natural ability to fight from the moment we are born and our first breath outside the safety of our mother’s womb. How we challenge life’s diagnosis and ourselves is a personal journey for us all.
(Five years have passed since rectal cancer defeated my husband. We, as a family, did not give up without a fight. Many tears shed, many lives changed, and dreams left unfinished. I have often pondered the lessons taught or gained from our experience. I believe I would not have become a hospice volunteer. Every six-week grief support group that I participate in gives me a sense of peace and belonging.)