With Thanksgiving less than a week away and the holiday season officially kicking-in, many of us find ourselves thinking of our families. We look forward to seeing those who travel the miles, just to savor a few days with each other. We remember the loved ones who have passed on. We may even cringe at who shows up, unexpectedly. Still, we manage a smile … set an extra plate … and wallow in a treasure that is uniquely ours — our family. Afterwards, we may play football in the backyard … watch a game on tv … take a snooze on the couch … even sift through old photo albums. We talk. We laugh. We reflect upon the good times, past and present. The one thing we rarely do — if ever — is discuss the tough choices. But for those who may be facing that discussion, in the coming days, I want to reflect upon one family’s choices.
My father was diagnosed in August of 1989 with stage 4 Lung Cancer. Sooner or later, everyone in his family seemed to battle it. So, there wasn’t much of a shock factor. He had been previously diagnosed with Cancer of the Larynx, 15 years earlier, and undergone successful surgery. But this was not that. Dad was now 76 years of age. Still, he was fortunate — no pre-existing health problems. We were dealing with Cancer alone. One tumor, the size of a baseball, had grown out of the lower lobe of his lung and wrapped around his heart. Thus, it was inoperable. The other 4 tumors, ranging from the size of a golf ball to a dime, really didn’t enter into the equation except to prove metastasis. He was terminally ill and the clock was ticking. My mother and I were like a pair of scared cats, in a room full of rocking-chairs. If Dad was, he certainly never let on. Without a bit of hesitation, he informed his doctors that he would not take chemotherapy. He had watched his older brother, Val, suffer horribly through the treatments back in the 1960s. He wanted no part of it. They suggested a little radiation therapy. He agreed to a few. Dad chose, with passionate dedication, to have Quality of Life. The doctors nodded and privately told us to get everything in order. At most, they said, he had 2 months.
By the grace of God, Dad lived for 10 months. With the exception of a few days that he battled pneumonia in the hospital, he did not take daily medication. He didn’t need oxygen. He lost less than 20 pounds. He ate whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He continued to live his life as he had been doing. Whether it was a trip to the mall for lunch at Frank N Steins, or going to church, or just watching a ballgame, it was pretty much the usual routine. While I was his designated caregiver, I was seldom needed. Unless, of course, he had an urge for a batch of homemade cookies. Then, I came in handy. Sometimes, those urges hit a couple of times a week. Despite appearances, Mom and I heeded the advice that his doctors had initially given us. But Dad, like the Sinatra song he was so fond of, did it his way. He passed on May 4, 1990, just after midnight. When the end came, it came swiftly — more like a heart attack than Cancer. He had been in the hospital, for less than an hour.
My mother’s family was, health-wise, the opposite of my father’s. Cancer was and still is a rarity, among them. So when my mother suddenly had back pain, in late February of 2008, no one was thinking of the “Big C”. That included her, despite a lengthy career in healthcare. Even more unusual, Mom started every new year with a complete physical. She had just passed one, with flying colours. Yet, there it was on the x-ray. A tumor. It was approximately the size of a grape. Further tests revealed that it had not spread. Still, we were dealing with a rare and aggressive form of Cancer. Mom had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Primary to the Bone. The tumor, located on her T-4 vertebrae was causing the pressure & pain in her lower back. Her oncologist suggested aggressive treatment, despite Mom’s age (72). She was, after all, the picture of health with no pre-existing health conditions. She hadn’t even retired. And Mom agreed to chemotherapy as well as radiation. She always loved a good fight. No battle was too big, or too intimidating. But Mom had never been a patient. In many ways, she didn’t seem to know how to be one. What followed was a 9-week roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.
She was never nauseated, by chemo. In fact, she regularly dined on Chick-fil-A and milkshakes with the IV in her arm. No vomiting. No hair loss. Instead, Mom suffered every unusual setback feasible. She was in the hospital as much as she was at home. As her caregiver, I charted her numerous medications (20) … made her meals … helped her bathe and dress … handled financial matters, etc. It was daunting. On April 31st, a blood clot hit my mother’s lung. It’s a rare complication. Still, it happens. How and why seem to remain a subject of debate. Within a week, Mom developed ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). The oxygen and morphine did little, at that point. She was slipping away, before our eyes. And we knew it. We could see it. Mom passed on May 10, 2008. It was Mother’s Day weekend.
In March of 2010, with my 50th birthday upon me, I was drafting a Bucket List. Silly, I guess. But I’ve always been a planner. What I didn’t plan on was the flu-like symptoms that hit me, i.e. aching all over, low-grade fever, lethargic. A few days later, my joints swelled. Suddenly, I couldn’t lift my arms. Nor could I open and close my hands. I couldn’t even wiggle my fingers. Clearly, this wasn’t influenza. Unlike my parents, my health had been problematic since I was 13. I was already juggling two chronic illnesses. This was about to be my third. Bloodwork confirmed that I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. And I was facing a familiar decision — chemotherapy.
As I sat in the Exam Room, I thought about my parents and the choices that they had made. Then, I tried to wrap my head around chemotherapy being used to treat something other than cancer. I had never even heard of it. But, like my Dad, I wanted Quality of Life. The irony, here … to achieve that, with RA, chemotherapy was the gold-standard. Because of my mother’s experience, my doctor suggested oral route Methotrexate. Once a week, I took a handful of pills. As harmless as that may sound, the result was a constant test of my physical and mental tenacity. The first eight weeks were the worst. Repeated bouts of nausea. Vomiting. At times, it took both my husband and son to hold me up. I was as weak and fragile as a rag-doll.
I lived on Sprite, apple juice and saltines. Some days, I was literally too weak to hold my head up. For every week thereafter, I gave up one day to the throes of treatment and a second to fatigue. My hair became thin — almost baby-fine in texture. I lost some of my eyebrows. And I lost 20 pounds. Still, I pressed on. I fought. Eventually, with added medications, the symptoms lessened. It became manageable. I simply had a 5-day week, when the rest of the world had seven. Occasionally, a treatment would sucker-punch me. And I felt as though I was starting all over again. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. It was a self-induced hell. A choice. Mine. One that I endured for 5 years and 8 months. One that, even today, I pray was successful (in the long-term). Only time will tell.
As you gather with your families, in the weeks ahead, consider all that you share. Think of the choices that you have made in life. And then, think of theirs. Try, for a moment, to walk in each other’s shoes. One day, you may find that you have to. God bless.