Can you really prepare for loss?  Is there a way to build a wall around your heart, knowing that metastatic cancer is likely to end in the death of your loved one?  Is there some way to stop it from being one of the most painful experiences in your life?

Leroy’s cancer did not move quickly.  There were even months when it ran away and hid somewhere, leaving us with the false hope that all those bags filled with poison dripping into his veins had actually been successful killing all those cancer cells.  Or maybe it was the radiation that did the trick?  I remember how happy we were with the results and we certainly were not preparing for his death during that time.  For us, we just more of reason to look ahead, plan for a future without cancer, and get back to living.

So when the cancer returned and his prognosis turned to ‘terminal,’ we were stunned back into a reality that was heartbreaking, but still, there wasn’t any planned preparation that would have lessened the blow of losing him.

I’m not talking about getting his affairs in order.  I’m not talking about wills being checked and power of attorneys being updated.  That all has to be done regardless of prognosis and it’s not a fun thing to do.

I’m talking about preparing for the worst in your mind and in your life.  Some care givers think that can be done.  How?

How do you do that?  When that final breath comes, it’s not to be believed.  You really can’t anticipate it.  It takes your breath away too.

The free fall from this kind of loss doesn’t provide a soft landing. Not in the real world.

 

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There was a line at the elevators this morning at the cancer center. It seemed we all parked, at the same time and we all met at the elevators, at the same time.

There were the patients with their masks on, dressed in jeans and Baltimore team jerseys.  Clearly they came comfortable, knowing that the morning would stretch into the afternoon.  Treatment is never quick.

There were the visitors carrying the latest magazines and get well cards.  They were dressed to inspire.  When you’re a cancer patient in the hospital, it’s always nice to see family and friends and if they dress in bright Spring colors, the mood in the hospital room is uplifted.  It’s a mental thing.  It might sound crazy, but it works.

And then there were the parents.  And there was the son.  I noticed them in the crowded elevator because the Dad was totally confused about what floor they needed to go to and how to navigate the lobby once they got there.  The Mom had the cancer center tote bag completely packed.  Newspapers, book, cell phone, notepad; she was ready for a day at Hopkins.  The son just walked purposefully to the check in area.  He was on a mission.

Everyone went their separate ways.  A typical day of treatment and outpatient care.

My day moved from meeting to meeting in the building I have come to know so well,  with the occasional flashback of cancer days with Leroy.

The day complete, I turned the corner to get to those same elevators and there was the “Mom” sitting in a lobby chair, reading her book.  I remembered this stranger from the elevator ride because of her bright blue blouse.  I stopped mid-step and turned back to say “Wow, you’ve had a long day?” She smiled, with tears in her eyes, and said “My son, he’s still in surgery.  It will be a few more hours.”

I asked if I could get her anything, she shook her head ‘no’ and I told her I hoped it would all work out.

She said “it will.”

The long days of cancer are exhausting.

 

 

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She was leaning-in on him and weeping.

All he could do was put his arms around her and let her cry.

Every few minutes he would whisper something in her ear. Whatever he said,  had enough power to give her the strength to look up, into his eyes, but that magnetic pull lasted only a few seconds.  Her tears were much  more powerful.  They forced her head back into his chest where it must have found his heartbeat.  Her tears and his heartbeat, what better combination to absorb devastating news in a cancer infusion waiting room.

He finally eased her down into her wheelchair where she would catch her breath, hold her head in her hands and wait for the next tsunami of tears.  It didn’t take long for her to stand up, the tears flowing and shaking with fear.

They were frozen in that space.  He clearly felt this was the best place for them to ride out the news.  It wasn’t a private space, but it was far enough away from the world outside that was moving to a different beat.  They stayed, locked together in that pose for a long time.

Bad cancer news and so many tears.

 

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Any one who has traveled down the ‘cancer path’ knows first hand, you can not do this alone.

From day one, it takes the support of so many members of the ‘TEAM” to get through the struggle.  On the good days when you want to share some positive news, you reach out to be lifted by your pals.  On the bad days, it goes without saying, you need them the most because a bad scan or new tumor can be crushing.

So from a distance, over the weekend, I said good-bye to one of the ‘TEAM.”

There wasn’t a day during Leroy’s battle that this member of our group wasn’t with us.  Every drive up to Baltimore this member was there.  Reliable, strong, always prepared, we knew we were in good hands.

We celebrated the good news by taking our ‘friend’ to our favorite diner off I-95 so many times.  We cried together at the devastating news when the doctor said Leroy’s cancer had moved to parts unreachable.  There was never a more dependable comrade.

A few years after Leroy died, I parted company with the JEEP, but it stayed in the family.  My nephew would drive it, and take care of it, because he knew the history that came with those four wheels.  But when he recently broke the news that he’d purchased a new car, the writing was on the wall.

So instead of selling the call to some new driver who would have no heart in the deal, we decided the best thing to do would be to donate the car to a needy military group. It was the perfect solution, considering Leroy’s history of covering war zones and his close attachment to the military.

Support, in a small way,  going to a group who supported him for many years.

It’s hard to say “good-bye” to such a trusted member of the team.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s always the same.  This weekend of Easter Parades and Easter Bunnies and Easter Eggs.  The memories are vivid.  The basket is full of See’s Easter chocolates.  The truffle eggs are nestled in the cellophane grass.

It was such a tradition and never a surprise after so many years, but Leroy would still act surprised when he’d find this colorful basket at his bedside on Easter morning.

I keep this memory at the ready because it makes me smile on this particular Sunday morning on the April calendar.

My wishes for all of you is to have a Happy Holiday.  Enjoy it the way you do for years to come:

A basket full of memories.

 

 

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The door to the exam room opens and in walks your nurse to sit with you and go over some questions that will prepare the doctor for your exam.  “How have you been feeling?”  “Any side effects to the treatment?”  “Stomach pains, headaches, fevers?”  All questions you’ve come to know and anticipate.  Your nurse takes your blood pressure, she guides you to the scale and takes your weight: standard procedure on exam day at the cancer center.

When your doctor arrives, he/she has looked over your chart and your exam is underway.  All in a day of cancer care and hopefully you leave there ‘status quo,’ if not better.

Do you ever stop to wonder what led your doctor or nurse to oncology?  It’s got to be one of the hardest practices in medicine.  The news is rarely good.  The treatment’s work only some of the time and giving bad news is a constant in cancer world.  It is one, tough, daily grind.

Last night I was in the audience at a symposium titled “Improving Minority Health and Achieving Health Equity.”  How the medical world can better treat ALL of us.

The panel was filled with extraordinary men and women of science and they shared interesting perspectives on the topic of the evening but it was prior to the topic discussion that made an impact on me.  The moderator asked each panelist what made them go into their particular medical field?

I think we sometimes forget that the very people we look toward for medical guidance, have lived through medical crisis just like we have.  They have lost loved ones too.   Disease and illness does not skip the health care professionals wearing the white coats.

A favorite Aunt suffered terribly during her kidney disease and that led to one panelist becoming a leading Nephrologist.  Another went through the heart ache of watching her sister suffer through a deadly childhood Leukemia.  She now leads a team of medical professionals who reach out to the community to introduce the importance of clinical trials for various cancers.  And another who witnessed first-hand from her village in Liberia, what poor health care can mean for socially at-risk groups;she has become a leader in ‘Health Care Equity,”  She takes policy and translates it into practice; improving lives and health care throughout the Baltimore, Maryland region.

This was a wake-up call.  We take for granted, the people we lean on to help us through our hard times. They have experienced their own heartaches.  Maybe that’s what makes them so special.  They ‘get it.’

We need to remember those white coats might be hiding a broken heart too.

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Conversations with other widows (still a term I have trouble saying or writing) always leads me to long talks with myself.  I know that sounds odd, but last night I got into a conversation with a woman who talked about her life with her husband and her life without him…now.

She said she’s so different now, compared to the things they used to do together as a couple.  She talked about how she used to cook so much.  Meals were well balanced and planned out and they would eat together because that was part of being a couple.  She hardly steps into the kitchen now.  She certainly doesn’t cook except to do fun things with her grandkids.  She tries to eat well, but admits to falling into bad habits and then self-corrects and ‘gets healthy’ again. But it’s a struggle because meals that were once fun and anticipated and made for quality time with a guy she was happy to hang around, just wasn’t there anymore.

So of course that got me to thinking about how over the past almost 9 years now, my kitchen habits have changed too.  I don’t make the things that were a part of ‘our menu’ over the years.  Every once in a while, I’ll remember something I used to make and prepare it, but then I have this one dish staring at me from the refrigerator for the entire week and I wonder why I bothered to make it?  I never had that problem with Leroy in the house.  He appreciated the cook and the cooking.

Now, I’m basically a salad girl or a simple one pot, one portion cook.

Do I miss cooking?  Sometimes.

I miss who I used to cook for, the most.

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Did you ever stop to think….

How much work goes in to fighting cancer every single day?  I mean think of the cancer work force in just this country alone?  Patients, Doctors, Researchers, Scientists, Nurses, Social Workers, Caregivers, to name just a few groups and they’re on the front lines.  There are so many others who work to make the cancer centers and infusion rooms and radiation suites operate on schedule. It’s mind boggling when you think of it.

When we walk into a cancer center or our doctor’s office for a treatment or check-up, we are so focused on “us” that we never stop to think about what it took to get us to this part of our cancer journey.

So many dedicated people, so much research and countless discoveries have improved out chances of survival.

Nothing is guaranteed.  These folks have even raised the “HOPE” factor in each of our stories.

It’s time to stop and think.

 

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Who are the real hero’s in the discoveries of cancer treatment?  The brave patients who decide they want to be part of the clinical trials world; that’s who.

It’s hard enough being a part of cancer world, but to add the layer of clinical trials to that existence means earning a real medal of bravery.  Some patients sign on for Phase ONE trials.  Those are the real risk takers.  First line warriors willing to say “Bring it on, no matter what happens.”  That’s a patient who is on the first line of a new treatment, willing to give it all.

But all patients who sign up for trials are taking a leap of faith that this latest discovery is the one that will change the course of cancer treatment for so many, maybe this will be THE one that is that cancer silver bullet.

The researchers can’t live without these brave patients and neither can the oncologists.  They work as a team.  They move the science forward and even with the trial failures, they still move forward, learning from what didn’t work.

I am in awe of you; all of you who don’t hesitate for a second to say “Sign me up.”

It’s a leap of Olympic proportions.

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I hadn’t packed that bag in many years.  Funny how it all comes back to you when you need it.

The newspaper, the bottle of water, some crackers and a little candy.  I even remembered to put in a few new magazines if the procedure went longer than expected.

My young friend Ethan had his surgery today.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it was still surgery.  In fact the he told me the nurses loved seeing him because it was considered ‘out-patient’ and they took one look at him and said, “You’re healthy, you’re not over weight, this isn’t cancer and you should be out of here quickly.”  That’s a great patient to tend to for a team of highly skilled pre and post-op nurses.

It all went according to plan, I’m happy to say, but I still needed to pack that shoulder bag filled with waiting room supplies.  His Mom had her bag too.  Two old veterans of the Weinberg waiting room.  We’ve both been there for much more serious events in our lives.   Both our husbands had faced operations in that building that weren’t as routine.  Cancer operations are never routine.

So today, we really just talked a lot to stay occupied, read a little and texted the folks who were waiting to be updated.

Finally, the O-R attendant came and escorted us to recovery a few hours after the surgery.

Our bags were packed and it was just a matter of time for the patient to be cleared to travel home.

Healing is on the agenda now and the fatigue is settling in from an early morning, stress filled event.

And the ‘waiting room bag’ is empty now: unpacked and back in the closet.

I hope it stays there for a very long time.

 

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