Thursday, August 8, 2013

You Don't Die of Cancer, You Live With It

(From the August 8, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)


I missed the deadline for my July column. I got an email from my editor: “Are you out there? Your column is due.” I replied to him that I was in the hospital with my wife and frankly had completely forgotten about the column. He agreed I could take the month off. It has been that kind of summer.

Let me back up. My wife had major surgery back in mid-May related to her cancer. While my wife was in this 9-hour surgery, I received an email from the U.S. Navy asking me to confirm I wanted to go on a “Leaders to Sea” program aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. (I wrote about this experience in my June column). A couple from church who were in the waiting room with me agreed: I should go. My wife upon regaining consciousness also agreed.

The rationale for this decision: when you or someone you know is fighting cancer, you have to keep living.

This decision got complicated later when my wife spiked a fever on the way to a high school graduation open house for the son of friends. We spent an evening in urgent care instead of at an open house. I wondered if I should still go on the Navy trip, but my wife said to go ahead.

When dealing with cancer, you’re still living.

So I went. I had just gotten back ashore and in cell phone range when I called my wife to learn she was in the hospital being treated for an infection that had caused her fever. She spent six days there. We had plans to go to England where I had to make a presentation at an academic conference, and she was going to come along. I was finding out that her plane ticket was not refundable, even for being hospitalized. But she was discharged three days before departure. So she went along, with oral antibiotics for the infection, injections to treat a blood clot related to surgery, and one remaining surgical drainage tube.

It may seem to some like a hassle and potentially dangerous to travel overseas in such circumstances. But this was a rare opportunity. And, when you have cancer you are not dying, you’re living.

While in England, we were blessed with relatively good health. Security and airline personnel were actually quite helpful with my wife’s excess bag for medical supplies. At one point she noted that her drainage tube was not draining any more. But we were in England, and would not be home for another week. We emailed a sister-in-law and asked her to call our doctor. An email came back saying it would be ok for me to remove the drainage tube, along with instructions. So I donned rubber gloves and did the procedure in our hotel room.

It’s all part of realizing that when dealing with cancer, you just have to keep on living.

Back from England, we hit the ground running with medical appointments. We retuned on Thursday evening, and had one appointment already on Friday. The following week we joked that it was a good thing the Fourth of July was on the calendar, because every other day that week involved a doctor’s visit of some kind. So at least, we thought, we would have the holiday off. We were wrong. The night before the Fourth (why do these things always happen on a Friday night or before a holiday?) my wife swelled up in two areas. It was scary. We called the doctor’s office the morning of the Fourth, expecting to at least get some advice over the phone from the on-call doctor. Instead we were told to meet with our surgeon at the clinic. The swelling turned out to be blood. One area was drained. The other had clotting and the doctor had to do a procedure to address it. It was the Fourth of July. My wife, the doctor, and I were the only ones in the building. So I got to be the surgical assistant.

It will be the most memorable holiday ever. Not what we would have wished for, but a reality nonetheless. When dealing with cancer, it’s amazing what can become part of your normal living 

The hardest part, and the reason I was in the hospital when I should have been working on my July column, was when my wife needed surgery again. The infection had become so serious that the doctor needed to “undo” part of the reconstructive surgery my wife had endured in May. It was a major setback.

Meanwhile, we have many appointments with doctors yet to come. Fortunately the blood clots and infection issues have been resolved. But there remains the nagging background uncertainty of whether cancer will come back. And we’re still uncertain about future surgery.

But, we keep living every day, and thanking God for each one. My wife keeps a gratitude journal and each night writes down three things for which she is thankful. With all the uncertainties of cancer, we have to delight in the certainties of each day. Moments together are sweeter. Time with family and friends are more precious. Routines and small achievements are more special. The presence of God is more powerful.

Yes, when you are dealing with cancer, it’s not about dying. It’s about living. Perhaps even better than before.

A collection of Tim Penning's columns is now available in the book "Thoughts on Thursdays."