When my first husband, Joe, was diagnosed with colon cancer, our world changed overnight. He had shown symptoms of illness for about 8 months, but the cancer had gone undiagnosed (BTW – if you’re having poop problems, go to the doctor and get a colonoscopy. If you don’t, I will hunt you down and bitch-slap you my own damn self). With this diagnosis, we went from fighting a mysterious and frustrating illness to fighting for his life. We were quickly told that it was stage IV, having spread not only to his lymph nodes, but his liver and possibly his lungs as well. According to the American Cancer Society website at the time, people with stage IV colon cancer had a 9% 5-year survival rate (in the intervening 11 years, it’s been changed to 6%).
Immediately, I decided, “fuck this, he’s going to be in that 9%, no matter what I have to do.” I wanted to change his diet, stop drinking sodas, eliminate (to the extent possible) any unhealthy things from our lives. I was totally “clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose” way before Coach Taylor uttered the words.
Lesson 1: Recognize what you can and can’t affect.
The problem was… Joe didn’t want to eat healthy food, or stop drinking Cokes, or exercise. He wanted to live, I fully believe that. But he wanted to enjoy the time he had left, especially if it was going to be limited by this disease. Also, I think he was tired. He’d been dealing with this for months already, he had mysteriously (now not so mysteriously) dropped 75 pounds, he had masked some of his symptoms even from me, and I suspect that he knew how bad it was even while I wasn’t able to face it.
For a time, our clash of wills was like two Andre-the-Giant-sized wrestlers locked in battle, but I eventually capitulated because our strife was a drain on him, and that’s the last thing he needed and I wanted. I stopped badgering him to take care of himself, made small changes that he didn’t object to, and did everything I could to make his life better, while still believing whole-heartedly that we could beat this sonovabitch.
Lesson 2: Once you recognize what you can and can’t affect, work with what you have.
We went about our new normal, with him receiving regular rounds of chemo and suffering through the side effects, and with the fear that accompanied each round of CAT scans. (If you know someone who’s being treated for cancer, be especially supportive and forgiving of them around the time of scans. It feels like you’re about to be told either that you’re to be fed to man-eating sharks or that you’re now as rich as Bill Gates, nothing in between.) About a year in, his doctor told us that if we wanted to take a trip, we should plan it sometime soon. This is when I finally listened and understood where we were at. This is when I started to face the idea that, most likely, he would suffer and die while I watched and could do nothing to stop it, and after the horror of that, I would be alone.
Lesson 3: Face reality rather than living as if it were otherwise.
We went to England and Scotland that summer. Joe did not have the energy he was accustomed to and we couldn’t go-go-go like we had previously. But there was a sense of urgency because we knew he would not be back again. We accomplished everything on his list and then some. We talked a lot (we had always been open about the situation, even while I was working hard to make it something that it wasn’t). We laughed a lot. We saw the arms and armour of the Wallace Collection, had cider in many Scottish and English pubs, whispered at the site where Charles I was beheaded, and were enthralled through a performance of Romeo and Juliet at The Globe. It was a wonderful trip that was haunted but not destroyed by the fear of what was to come.
Lesson 4: Even in the midst of darkness, recognize the good times and cherish them.
Treatment after the trip started taking a higher toll. The side effects increased. The effectiveness of the drugs decreased. They put him on different drugs that wreaked havoc on his skin and sense of touch. Eventually, we were told that approved drugs were no longer an option. After a brief attempt to get him into an experimental program, our house became his hospice.
Up to that point, Joe had handled his situation with humor and a lack of self-pity, which was somewhat surprising. The time in hospice that led up to his death showed an even more unexpected side of him. Friends came to our house, some from very far away, to see Joe one last time, to offer comfort, and to say goodbye. These scenes could have been awkward or uncomfortable or downright maudlin. On the contrary – laughter rang through the house as we reminisced and gave each other shit over all manner of things and said goodbye. Joe was exhausted, but he gave everyone his attention and his love. At a time when he was facing his own mortality in a way none of us could imagine, he did his best to put everyone else at ease. It was the most gracious act I have ever witnessed.
Lesson 5: No matter what you are going through, be gracious with others, especially those you love.
Toward the very end, there was little laughter. Joe became unresponsive and we waited. His family, who had been a rock through the whole ordeal, helped watch over him, as did some very close friends. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to admit that it was time for Joe to leave us, time for the universe to show kindness and end his suffering and ours. Inevitably, as it had been from the moment of diagnosis, the universe complied. Through all of this, I had worked so hard to be strong for Joe, to be strong for our family and friends, to carry on at my job without letting it affect my work, to do everything in my power to ensure that his remaining life was as good as it could possibly be. I didn’t always succeed, but I will honestly say that I believe that I did a hell of a job. Before Joe’s diagnosis, I had always known that I was strong. I just had no idea how strong.
Lesson 6: You have the power to be as strong as life requires you to be.
Let me repeat:
YOU HAVE THE POWER TO BE AS STRONG AS LIFE REQUIRES YOU TO BE.
This has been the most powerful lesson I have ever learned, and I want so desperately to convey it to others. I want to give it to you. I want to crawl in your brain and your heart and your soul and plant this seed, that no matter what comes your way, you are strong and powerful and capable of handling anything life throws at you. Please believe me. I know darkness, and I know that darkness can be conquered.