It’s with you all the time. The constant nagging questions of what will happen next? The worry and crushing reality that once you hear the “C word,” you are joined to the hundreds of thousands of those who have lived with a cancer diagnosis before you.
Nothing is the same as it was. But, you ask yourself—am I living with cancer, or am I dying with cancer? It’s hard to say. Cancer treatments can make you feel as if you are dying, or even wish for death, yet the gratitude felt as you imagine your immune system attacking the evil inside is fraught with questions: Is the price worth it? Is quantity of days better than quality of days? Will I suffer at some point? Will I beat the odds?
After all, the studies are about numbers, and people are much more complex than that.
These thoughts rattle around in my head, and I’m not even the one with cancer. My husband of 50 years is the patient. I am his caregiver. We both have been derailed by his diagnosis, even though at our ages, sickness and mortality are frequent visitors among our peers.
I had never thought of us as one of the couples who are “soul mates.” We are very different in our thinking, but united in our practicality and spirituality. But as a raging empath, I feel everything he feels, whether real or imagined, just as if it were happening to me.
We are truly “one flesh”—a relationship that melds over the many years of a committed marriage. A true blessing many people never enjoy.
So what now? Acceptance, I know, is the wise course. But, will acceptance make room for action? Action that drives us to seek a new or better treatment? To try a new diet? Can he consume sugar, or should he refrain? Should he juice, or enjoy his favorite beverage (beer)? All these questions go unanswered, or vacillate between yes and no, daily, even hourly.
Wearing a Smile for Disguise
Meanwhile, the world turns. The kids work. Our friends live and die. People talk about the difficulties in their lives, and try to live the best they can.
We, however, are stuck in this space of uncertainty, saying “Oh, we’re fine. We are taking one day at a time. What will be will be.” All the while wishing there were answers. Feeling hollow inside, but wearing a smile on the outside.
The truth is, metastatic cancer is terminal. When cures are offered, the providers are hopeful. They give us hope. It’s what they are trained to do. They can guess the outcome of a certain condition, but they are doing just that—guessing. True, it is an educated guess, but here we go again, full circle back to the questions. Can we beat the odds?
It Started with a Birth Mark
My 72-year-old husband has stage IV metastatic melanoma that started in a birth mark on his leg. He was first diagnosed in 2019, and after a wide-angle incision, all the margins and lymph nodes were clear.
One year later, lesions began to spring up all over his leg. They looked like blood blisters, but were hard, black melanoma nodules. He started immunotherapy, but after 6 months had a side effect that meant he could no longer get immunotherapy.
We then sought out 2 other opinions for treatment options. However, when those were offered and explained, including a few clinical trials as potential options, my husband declined.
He continues to choose quality of life over quantity. His cancer has metastasized to the small bowel, and the doctors say the cancer is “on the move” (meaning, it is progressing). But, we take one day at a time, and we are thankful for our team of professionals—an oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and palliative care experts who are willing to help, should he change his mind.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (https://bit.ly/3yyiLmf), an estimated 19.3 million people were diagnosed with cancer worldwide in 2020, and almost 10 million people died from cancer. That is about 26,000 people each day diagnosed with cancer, and 1 of every 6 deaths occurring worldwide.
According to the American Cancer Society (https://bit.ly/3w6lWzK), 1.8 million new people were estimated to be diagnosed with cancer in the United States in 2020, and 606,520 Americans were estimated to die from cancer that year. More than 600,000 people die of cancer in the United States each year.