While, thankfully, my life has not been touched by Breast Cancer, it *has* been touched by cancer – in more ways than one – and I wanted to write about that today.

The past two days I have chosen to write on topics that have challenged me, and my desire to live a more Joyful life.  Today’s post is no exception.  But it is through challenges that we learn and grow – at least, we hope we learn and grow, instead of curling up into a little ball and letting sorrow, grief, anger, and fear slowly nibble away at our vitality…  Retreating from the world into ourselves, wallowing in our self-pity and building our walls in a way that will protect our vulnerabilities is a natural inclination in times of stress.  But learning to break down those walls from the inside once more is the only way to truly live our lives.

In 1992, I went in for my annual exam, fully expecting that I’d get my normally clean bill of health.  A short while later, imagine my surprise and slight consternation when I got a call from the clinic telling me I’d had an “abnormal” Pap smear, and asking if I’d come back in for another exam – just to make sure.  When I came back in, I was told it would be best for them to take a biopsy of my cervix rather than just a Pap.  Oh, that was NOT a comfortable procedure, but it was more comfortable than the wait to hear back from the lab.

Sure enough, I was told that I had Cervical Dysplasia – a “pre-cancerous” condition that, if left untreated, would very likely become Cervical Cancer.  At that time, there were three different recommended courses of action, each one indicating the severity of the dysplasia.  It was recommended that I get the “medium” level of treatment – a removal of the pre-cancerous cells by freezing.  No, that didn’t sound very comfortable, either…

My date was set for a Friday (I had actually been grated a short Leave of Absence from my job – I think it was about a week or so…), and my boyfriend at the time (we were actually in one of our “off again” phases, but I was happy to have him with me) went with me to the clinic and was allowed to stay by my side through the procedure.  The doctor recommended that my boyfriend not allow me to grab more than two of his fingers – something he was very glad of, as the two fingers I was given were very thoroughly squeezed by my right hand (I think I was grabbing a nurse’s fingers with the other hand) while I was trying not to scream.  I do seem to recall that I’d been given a mild sedative (Valium?), but I was still mighty uncomfortable while the doctor was working away freezing part of my insides…

Finally, it was over, I was given a prescription for Hydrocodone, and the boyfriend took me home and put me to bed.  I think he stayed with me most, if not all, of the time, but honestly, it’s pretty blurry.  I do remember that I watched Star Wars.  All Weekend.  Because I’d watch about 20 minutes, the drift off to sleep for 2 hours, then watch 15 minutes and nap for 3 more hours, etc…

When I finally recovered and stopped taking the Hydrocodone (wheeeeee!), life pretty much got back to normal, except that I now had to go in for Pap smears more frequently for a couple of years (which, thankfully, all came back Normal).  I felt (and still feel!) very grateful that my dysplasia was caught before it could become something worse, that I’ve been given an overall very healthy body in which to live and with which to carry and bear my children.

Sadly, just a few months later, Cancer would attack my life from another direction – my beloved father was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He’d been sick for a couple of months with what seemed like a very bad cold that just would NOT go away.  He hated doctors, and kept refusing to go, even though we kept telling him he ought to go in.

Apparently, he finally heeded our advice, although he didn’t TELL any of us he was going (typical of him…).  My mom got a call from the doctor’s office, asking her if she could meet him at the hospital – he had diagnosed throat cancer and was recommending that he see a specialist to confirm it.  Mom called me, I ran down several flights of stairs to tell my sister (we were working for the same company in the same building at that time), and we all met at the hospital.  Of course, the specialist confirmed throat cancer, and an immediate laryngectomy was scheduled.

Daddy was a tough nut.  Even though he had to speak with an electro-larynx now, he was determined to live his life as normally as he could.  He bought a wig when most of his hair fell out.  He quit chemo and radiation when he decided that his quality of life was more important to him than his quantity of life.  He happily tossed the wig aside when his own hair grew back in.  He built a shed in the back yard.  He went back to work again.  For three years, things were about as normal as they could be.

In early 1995, though, he suddenly got much weaker.  We were there with him to celebrate his birthday, and he was just so tired…  The next morning, Mom called me to tell me that he’d slept in his chair because he was too weak to get up and go to bed.  She asked if I’d come over and help take him to the hospital.  He was awake and alert when I got there, but as soon as I tried to help him stand, he collapsed.  I knew I could get him to the hospital faster than an ambulance (thank you, autocross racing experience!), so we grabbed a neighbor to help get him into the car (thank you, rolling office chair!), and took off.  The hospital orderlies took over at the hospital entrance, and he was whisked away from us.

My sister was at work that morning, so it took some time to get in touch with her.  When I finally did, of course, she came as quickly as she could.  It turns out that the cancer had spread and reached his lymph system, and was no longer considered treatable.  Our only option was to bring him home under Hospice care and allow him to pass with as much dignity as possible.

That was the most difficult, most grueling, most heart-wrenching 5 months of my life.  My father, my Daddy, the most important man in my life (yes, I was a Daddy’s Girl…), who had always been so vibrant and strong and capable – was now reduced by circumstances to a weak, bed-ridden invalid.  Never a large man (he truly hated the word “skinny”), he lost weight, his skin lost it’s color, his teeth literally started to rot out of his head.  He had trouble chewing, and was reduced to a liquid diet (and oh, he HATED the Jevity).  He often had trouble swallowing.  We had to regularly clean his stoma (the hole in his throat).  He had to be on a machine to help him breathe.  His nurse had to assist him with bodily functions.

The last week or so, he seemed to be looking beyond us, beyond the walls of my childhood bedroom.  We weren’t certain what (or who?) he was looking at, but we could guess.  The veil between the worlds was growing thinner and thinner.  Whether he was looking into the Beyond, or communing with loved ones that had gone before, or simply searching for his Guides to the Next World, it wasn’t anything we could share with him.  We knew his time was close, and while we dreading having to say Goodbye, we wanted him to be released from this earthly shell which had utterly failed him.

The last two days, he wasn’t really “there.”  He had slipped into a state of unconsciousness.  Still, we spoke with him, we held his hand.  We all said (again!) all the things we’d wanted and needed to say.  That last night, my sister and I both stayed at our parents’ house instead of our own homes.  My mother and sister both went to bed, and, night owl that I am, I elected to stay up and keep watch with him.  I stayed awake as long as I could – it was almost 4 in the morning when I went to wake my sister and have her take over (as we had agreed).  She was already awake.  I don’t actually remember if I said “I love you” one last time, or if I kissed his still-living forehead one last time.  I think I did.  I must have.  But I don’t really know.

I crawled into bed in the room next door and closed my eyes.  Not 5 minutes later, my sister came running in, said “get Mom, he’s gone” and ran back into his room.  I woke my mother, we went in together, and sure enough, he had slipped away.

I think he waited until I would show him that I could and would take care of myself (and go get some sleep, already, stop making a fuss over me, dammit!), and my sister says he waited until she could be with him, knowing that she needed to be there more than I did (she claims she was awake when I came in because he had woken her).

That was more than 16 years ago, now, and I still miss him every single day.  I wish my daughters could have had the chance to get to know him – he would have LOVED being a Grampa!  I miss his wisdom, his unique sense of humor, his practicality and his total smartass approach to life (to this day, all of the people I enjoy hanging out with most have an enormous dose of smartass in them).

It is one of my fondest wishes in this life that Cancer will be made obsolete – that no other family has to go through such a horrific experience.  Every little bit I can do to further this goal – I will.

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