My husband receives a call from the doctor who has his biopsy results. The small lump at his jawline is not uncommon- the doctor has been optimistic- cavalier even- but it turns out that his is not benign at all. It is a rare cancer of the parotid gland.
We are about to find out that getting a cancer diagnosis causes one to enter the stages of grief. First stop: denial. How can this be? He is healthy. His medical reports have always been perfect. He is active, a young fifty-five and never felt better.
I’ve forgotten all about Halloween and now it’s getting dark, the time that little ones will start showing up at our door, looking for treats. We have no candy and are in no mood for visitors. We turn out most of the lights and sit in the near-dark living room, allowing this new reality to sit with us. We’ve kept the trick-or-treaters at bay, but we are not alone. There is a wolf at the door, and it is Cancer.
I call our daughters and deliver the news.
My husband is very concerned about disrupting mine and the girls’ lives. Always confident, capable and available, he feels he is failing us with this new and shocking title: cancer patient. Usually such a logical man, this makes little sense. Of course he did not choose this, no one does, and all we care about is him getting better. But the love and protection he has always given us, above and beyond what is expected, is one of the things I love about him. And now I want to protect him, to cure him, to save him. I am simultaneously aware of my inner strength and my mortal limitations.
It is our 31st wedding anniversary and also the day of my husband’s surgery. The surgeon removes the tumor as well as many lymph nodes in his neck. The doctors call it a neck dissection, but my husband prefers to call it a neck fillet. Even in his current state, he maintains a bit of his sense of humor. I am relieved. The past week has been emotionally rough to say the least, but we find reasons to laugh too.
We follow through on our plans to host Thanksgiving dinner at our home. It is a day of family and food and also of forgetting, for a few minutes at a time, that we are awaiting the next day’s pathology report.
We stop at the second floor of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. We are fortunate to be just an hour drive away from such a reputable treatment center. We ride the elevator to the second floor. “Welcome to the land of the fucked”, my husband says as he looks around.
The oncologist is impeccably groomed and impossibly thin. He’s also friendly and kind but maintains the necessary level of detachment. He delivers the pathology report. It has been a successful surgery. No facial nerves were damaged. But cancer was found in one of the thirty-one lymph nodes that were removed. We discuss treatment options.
I gather books and food; I read and cook and freeze and clean. My husband makes calls and fills out paperwork. He deals with insurance details and prepares for his leave of absence from work. He is a pilot and I wonder if the radiation from the cockpit has contributed to this misfortune. Friendly skies my ass. I make a mental note to research this.
We update the people closest to us. We are grateful for their kindness, and for the resources that we have to get through this great challenge as best we can.
Treatment begins. There will be six weeks of daily radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy. We have had every discussion, imagined every scenario, asked every question.
The technician brings me back to the room with my husband so I can see the radiotherapy equipment. They place the custom-made mask on his face and lay him down on the table. A giant machine looms above, like something out of Star Trek. The technician is explaining things to me, being both thoughtful and clinical, just like the oncologist. I glance over at the table again, at my husband strapped down now, and my eyes start to fill. I silently demand of myself not to cry before I look back at the man who has been giving me the low- down on radiation. I cannot make his job harder, I think. I cannot make any of this any harder.
Our daughters, sons-in-law and baby granddaughters are all gathered at our home. We are genuinely happy, our hearts full. My husband has a few days off from treatment, which feels like a gift.
One more month of treatment. It will get progressively more painful from here, affecting his teeth, his mouth, his swallowing. I was made for hard things, but watching a loved one suffer is not one of them. I want to curl up in the fetal position at the thought of his pain, but mostly because of the shadow of uncertainty that Cancer has cast upon his life. I gather my strength though, doing my best to stay in each moment. I recall words from Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now: “Whatever your present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”
Cancer arrived at the end of 2018, unannounced and unwelcome, an intruder in our lives. With all the love and strength and hope we can muster, along with all that modern medicine can offer, I believe we will send Cancer away. I picture my husband and myself, our amazing family, thoughtful friends, and the team of medical personnel, leaning on the door, all of us with all our might. We lock the door.
The new year brings healing, life, and glorious days. I will welcome those moments, those days, eagerly as if I had chosen them, and God knows I have.