What is it like when you first learn that your spouse has cancer?
A couple of posts back, I explained how I told my wife about the just-received diagnosis and proceeded to depart for a 2-week trip to Antarctica. I hated that I had to deliver bad news and then leave. While the trip was a good thing for me, I knew that Debra would be very sad and very worried, and would struggle as she processed the new information.
I remember trying to put an upbeat spin on what the doctor had told me. He had used words like “caught it early” and “proven treatment” for this type of cancer. I told Debra that treatment would take a couple of months. As she would have expected, I expressed optimism and confidence about dealing with this. Did I say something silly like “no need to worry”? I sure hope not. Here is what Debra remembers about that day and the first few days after the diagnosis.
“When Lee left the house early that morning to go to the ENT doctor, I did not have a good feeling about what he would learn. I just knew it was going to be bad news. And I had already started to worry. And ‘what if’ questions filled my head. I tried to focus on the trip and being helpful to Krista with her packing. I had earlier decided to prepare and hide a bunch of special cards in Lee’s bag so he would have a new card from me for nearly every day he would be away. I busied myself with this task while Lee was at the doctor’s office. This was something I used to do regularly when Lee first started traveling for business; but not so much in recent years. In February 2017, I really wanted Lee to know how much I appreciated, cared for, and loved him. It was particularly important then, because we had been going through a rough patch.
Lee and I have hearts that have been tightly entwined through forty years of experiences together. From the beginning of our relationship, falling in love, getting married, having babies, parenting, just going thru the motions of life, sometimes just surviving, through sickness, injuries and bad ‘whammies’, like miscarriages, deaths of family members, deaths of friends. All of the above are strings and knots that can bring people closer together, as they had for me and Lee.”
All the way home from the doctor’s office, I thought about Debra and how best to tell what I had just learned. I wanted to be factual about the diagnosis, and deliver the message with optimism about the prognosis. I decided I would talk to Debra and Krista at the same time. Back to Debra’s perspective:
“I was doing stuff at my desk in our home office when Lee returned. He came up to the office with Krista following him. I remember listening to him speak and say ‘the polyp was malignant.’ What? Malignant? Cancer? After that, I am not sure I really heard anything else, even though I know Lee was still talking. I remember saying ‘I knew it. I just knew it. I had this feeling when I woke up.’ I had an instant headache and felt like I could throw up. OMG! I was scared!
What did all this mean? I knew people who had cancer, some survived, some did not. You just told me that you have cancer, and you are leaving in 45 minutes? I was sobbing inside. I couldn’t think straight. I was so scared. And you’re leaving!?!?
I think I held it together while Lee and Krista prepared to leave. I knew there was no way I could change Lee’s mind about going on the trip. But I felt that he should stay home so he could start treatment right away. I knew that was not going to happen. Lee explained that treatment could not start right away no matter what. But I wanted to do something, and I wanted to do it immediately.
‘What? The car service is here?’ l was scared and he was leaving. After Lee & Krista left for the airport, I cried a lot. I was so scared. I was worried. I was angry. I felt like my world had been turned upside down. I wanted to scream. I had held it together as best so I could to send Lee & Krista off on the trip that had been planned for such a long time. I thought about Lee’s optimism and it helped me a little. But my mind took me down the worst-case path. It didn’t take long before I was worrying about how I would survive alone if the cancer took Lee.
As usual whenever Lee or Krista traveled internationally, and they had each traveled all over the world, I worried. They were taking a trip that I simply had no interest in going on. Just the idea of being on a boat crossing very rough seas made me feel seasick. I would settle for seeing the pictures. But they each had set a goal to visit all 7 continents. And Antarctica would be the seventh for them both. Funny, the ‘travel worry’ was not so bad this time, in spite of the exotic destination. That’s because I now was not only worried – I was scared to death about Lee having throat cancer.
I had a very difficult time falling asleep that first night. I literally fell into our bed. I needed sleep. Instead, many tears flowed. My stresses and anxieties were chasing each other frantically around the room. ‘What’s going to happen? How will we know what doctor to use, which radiologist, which oncologist? Where do I start? Who do I call?’ Finally, sleep came to me.
I woke up at 6:05 AM on Wednesday (February 15, 2017). I got a cup of coffee, fed the dog, and went upstairs to wake up our son, Cameron. He was happy to being going to his ACHIEVE program. We went though our morning rituals. The bus came and Cameron was off to ACHIEVE. I sat down at the kitchen table and write down a list of things to take care of: errands, groceries, check phone messages. Then tears came again. I gulped down my coffee, and then cried some more.
I decided to go back to bed. I couldn’t function. I got up at 2:15 PM and showered. At 2:30, I welcomed Cameron home. He took our dog, Comet, for a walk. Then he worked on his art. He loves to draw. A little later, I began to prepare on dinner and Cameron set the table. We ate and then cleaned up. Cameron showered and got his stuff ready for school. Bedtime was at 9:30, for Cameron and for me.
But my mind was racing. “Cancer in his throat? What does all this mean?’ I was sobbing uncontrollably. I still couldn’t think straight. ‘I’m so scared and you are not here”, I thought. ‘I knew people who had cancer, some survived, some did not. I know other people who have cancer now. How could you have cancer? I’m so scared and you left me.’ I fell into bed. I needed sleep. Instead, it was just more tears and more OMG questions. ‘What’s going to happen? How will we know what doctor, what radiologist, what oncologist? Where do I start? Who do I call?’ Sleep finally came.
I woke up at 6:05 AM on Thursday (February 16, 2017), got a cup of coffee, fed the dog, and went upstairs to wake up Cameron. Once again, Cameron was happy to being going to ACHIEVE. The bus came and Cameron was off. I sit down at the kitchen table and, once again, I made a list of things to do: errands, groceries to pick up, check phone messages. Then tears came. I gulped down my coffee and cried again.”
Debra described the first few days as like being in that old “Groundhog Day” movie. She told me she would wake up in the morning and for the first few minutes she would feel fine. Then she would remember the cancer. Whack! It would hit her like a rock. But she had to keep emotions in check for a while, because she had to be there for Cameron and help him get ready to go to his special needs Achieve program. As soon as Cameron was out the door, she told me that she would begin to cry. Fortunately, she did not have to cry alone. Our good friend Yvette, who lives with us, would cry with her.
“I was stuck in my own personal Groundhog Day. I was stunned and unable to function. I could only do the things that were absolutely necessary, which to me seemed to keep Cameron’s day stuck like Bill Murray’s in that silly Groundhog Day movie. I felt it was very important to ease Cameron into this new life with Dad’s cancer diagnosis.
I am not sure when it happened, but at some point I realized that I couldn’t just keep crying. I needed to do something. It was time for me to do what I usually do when a crisis hits. I needed to get busy doing what I could to make things better. Before falling asleep on Friday night, I made a list of all my questions. I had a lot of research to do. And I listed the calls I needed to make to set up appointments for Lee. Then I wrote down the names of people I needed to call. I had been radio silent with my friends during those first 4 days. I knew they would be there for me. But I felt like I had to process all this before I could speak to them.
It was time for me to start researching oncologists and cancer treatment centers. I had a mission and it kept me busy. And that was what I really needed.”
Debra experienced shock as bad or worse than I had. We would say that it was unavoidable. Only the duration was uncertain. When a loved one receives a serious cancer diagnosis, this is typical. Even the most stoic among us will experience some degree of shock. Our lesson learned: you just have to let it run its course. It’s a bit like grieving. Debra now tells people:
“Give yourself time and the freedom to process the information. And try to focus on the present and not spend too much time thinking or worrying about the future. It is important to begin to do things that help you get back to functioning. Write down what you need to do each day. Do things that move your mind away from just worrying and imagining the worse.”
If and when you are faced with the challenge of having a loved one diagnosed with cancer or any other serious ailment, it is essential that you take care of yourself. The lesson is similar to the pre-flight safety briefing we all hear when we fly commercially: “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” You must do what it takes to maintain your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Then you can be supportive and helpful to your loved one. Debra says now that she did not do as good of a job taking care of yourself as she now knows she should have. But she found what worked for her at the time. Debra’s advice today:
“It may only take little things. On the physical side, be sure to move your body. Exercise if you can. At least take walks. Mentally, occupy your brain with a challenge. Perhaps you enjoy crossword puzzles, Sudoku or other games. Just do something that exercises your mind. Emotionally, connect with friends. Allow them to remind you that you are not alone. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Live in the present moment as much as you can. I know this is easier to say than to do. But try. Allow your inner spirit and will to keep you going. Be deliberate in being aware of what is happening around you. And take time to pray or to reflect in whatever way you are spiritually. Develop a deeper focus on what truly matters. While I did not do it at the time, I know that journaling can help you with this and with mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing generally. ”
I am thankful for having a strong woman as my wife. My battle with cancer put her through a lot. I feel like it may have been emotionally and mentally harder on Debra than on me. It hurt me to know that this was likely the case. But it was also a source of strength and energy to battle the cancer, and a powerful reason why I had to win the battle.
One final thought. Thinking the worst and worrying are common reactions. But don’t let negative thoughts consume you. A useful insight comes from Seneca, one of the most famous Roman Stoic philosophers: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”