I suppose there are few fears that haunt us in the back of our minds more than becoming the hapless victim of that dreadful menace commonly known as cancer in all of its insidious forms and incarnations. Images of gaunt, ashen-looking patients with that sad far away look in their eyes make us cross our fingers or say a silent prayer: “God please never let it be me” — and perhaps we might even try to negotiate some sort of settlement in advance. All the while we know the statistics are not in our favor. We are left facing the stark reality that the axe might fall at any time.
What one may not so easily anticipate is the proverbial axe falling on a loved one while you stand helplessly by wishing it could be you instead of them but knowing full well that you do not get to make that choice. And so it was when I learned that my beloved wife had an aggressive sarcoma tumor the size of a baseball in her right calf. We initially thought she suffered a mere muscle injury from practicing yoga. Upon dismissal of this wishful thinking we were fast tracked into the surreal world of oncology with a blur of doctor appointments, second opinions, third opinions, hospital visits, operations, MRIs, CTs, lab tests, needles, IV poles, bags of chemo, pharmacies, to wit, a whole complex and somewhat intimidating array of goods and services designed to keep the monster at bay. This is what they called our “new normal” — a polite way of saying your life has been hijacked.
As I watched a third of my wife’s leg disappear I could barely articulate an encouraging sentence or offer a measure of solace without willfully pushing through the fatalistic dense numbness that had enveloped me. Biology run amok was no longer an abstract theory. It was an unwelcome intruder in our lives and the results of its pervasive activities were very tangible and sadly inescapable. A sense of powerlessness gripped me as I began to realize, for the most part, the situation and results were out my control. This was an affront to my innate maleness that always wants to provide a solution and fix problems without asking for help or directions.
While the monotonous treatment process unfolded, there were no visible signs of her condition. I knew this had abruptly changed the day I heard sobbing from the shower and rushed in to discover my wife’s hands filled with clumps of her hair. With tears streaming down her cheeks I assured her she would be just as beautiful to me without it. And then I fell silent and held her tight because sometimes words take up space where they don’t belong.
Losing her hair was a direct assault on her identity. She had bald patches on her head here and there until it was completely gone. Then she began the difficult grieving process of mourning the loss of something more than hair — she would never be a “before cancer” person again.
Enough praise cannot be lavished upon the stellar medical professionals at the San Diego Cancer Center in Encinitas who patiently explained the process to me in an attempt to ease my worried mind. Not to mention their kindness and gracious manner as they tended to my wife’s care through the long marathon that is part and parcel of effective treatment.
Admittedly while we were being battered about by this unexpected storm it was difficult to come to terms with the naked reality of our own vulnerability. During our darkest hours it was the compassionate care of family and friends that reminded us what it is be human. There is an inestimable value in being surrounded with loved ones when the stakes are life and death.
We celebrated our 28th anniversary trapped in that chemo treatment room. As we quietly sat hand in hand staring out the window I recalled the words of the English writer Jerome, “Nothing is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life.” Knowing the price of beauty I shed a silent tear.
Paul Kerr has been involved in consulting and training business professionals for more than 20 years. He is a principal at www.skillsforexcellence.net. He lives with his wife and two children in La Costa. His most recent role is being a caregiver for his wife.