A few nights ago, I woke up from two horrible nightmares drenched in sweat. I sat up and frantically reached over to my husband Casey’s side of the bed, seeking comfort. He wasn’t there so I got up and walked out to the game room where I knew I’d find him snoring in the recliner. I woke him up to come to bed and when he stood, I clutched him, crying a little bit. Disoriented, he returned my hug and then stumbled into bed and fell back to sleep. I calmed down, checked the monitor to see if the baby was still breathing, and settled back in hoping for sleep.
Six months ago we were focused on figuring out how to be parents to our still new baby girl. Six months ago we were finalizing Christmas plans with our families. Six months ago we were planning for high school reunions and weddings and summer vacations. Then, six months and one week ago Casey was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In November, I forced him into going to the doctor for a cough he’d had for months and a throbbing ache in his side. The diagnosis was a healing rib fracture from the cough, a cough which was a result of acid reflux and high liver enzymes. Eat better; it’s nothing to worry about, they told us. So we continued on, business as usual. He left for a work trip to Alaska, excited about working in the North Slope. We talked about the Northern Lights and polar bears and snow, happy because he had Christmas off and would be back in plenty of time to spend it with us.
He called me the day after he got there at 7:30 in the morning. He couldn’t breathe, his chest hurt, what should he do? My first thought was heart attack and I tried not to panic as I told him, in no uncertain terms, to get his ass to a hospital immediately. He was in enough pain and nervous enough that he did it. When he got there, they did a scan of his chest and found, what they called “a juicy nodule” in his left lung. They strongly recommended he fly home to Houston that morning and see a Pulmonologist.
Insert copious amounts of fear whilst trying to keep the anxiety at bay HERE.
It was nothing. It had to be nothing. It was a fungus or an infection or something easily wished away. It wasn’t anything scary or permanent. It definitely wasn’t cancer.
He had a biopsy done on Wednesday and by Friday we had a diagnosis. He texted me to ask when I’d be done with finals and I knew it was bad news. I’d done the same thing when I went into labor, texted to ask if he was busy before calling to say I was having our baby. He called me a few minutes later and asked if I could meet him at the hospital.
“What did they say?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it’s cancer.”
I deposited the confused senior who was making up a final in the teacher across the hall’s room, stopped by my boss’s office, and left. Rain and tears falling as I drove frantically to the hospital. I calmed down and made my way inside. He wasn’t crying so I couldn’t cry. Instead, he smiled at me when I came in. Smiled.
I took notes as the doctor spoke, processing processing processing…
Adenocarcinoma. Lung Cancer. Make an appointment for a PET scan. Don’t Google cancer. Cancer.com for reliable information. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Cancer board meeting.
We made more appointments and we didn’t cry.
If you know me, you know that holding back tears in the face of even the slightest sign of adversity is next to impossible. I don’t know how I held it together but I did. Because I had to, I guess.
We had to wait until the following Wednesday, until after the PET scan, for more accurate results from the oncologist. We’re fortunate that his best friend was in town because he was able to help make light of the situation, to diffuse the fear and bring laughter where there otherwise would have been none. He sent cancer memes and we all made cancer jokes and somehow made it through the weekend.
Wednesday finally came. The oncologist, a dry, removed Frenchman, confirmed the diagnosis and then stared at us, not speaking. Casey was silent. I asked what stage. 3B – it’s moved from his left lung into the lymph nodes surrounding his mediastinal area. I asked what this meant, if we should be scared. I’ll be honest; yes, it’s progressed beyond surgery. He would need both chemotherapy and radiation.
He stared at us some more. We stared back. I tried not to cry. Casey smiled. Smiled.
We got in the car and drove home, making idle chitchat along the way. I wasn’t sure if I should bring up what the doctor said but when we were a few minutes from home, I couldn’t take it any longer and I asked.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re acting really strange. I think you’re in shock.”
We pulled into the driveway, he turned and smiled at me, and held that smile as we walked inside where he his parents were waiting for us. They asked how it went and I turned away from him to pick up Little Z, giving him a chance to answer. And finally, he broke. He dropped his head into his hands and wept.
“I don’t want to die.”
I’d never experienced anything near true pain until that moment. I’d never seen my resilient, overly optimistic, hulk of a husband show any sort of weakness and I’d certainly never seen him cry. I watched helpless as his parents wrapped their arms around him, giving him comfort the only way they knew how, and still I didn’t cry. I let them console him first and then I sat at his feet and joined them, still holding onto my baby for dear life. And when he’d calmed down, I excused myself and went outside to the back porch and finally let myself sob.
He found me outside. He sat down, stretched out his arms, and held me until I’d calmed down. Somehow he managed to make me laugh. Christmas was in two days.
The next few weeks were full of sadness and fear as we waited…and waited…and waited for the doctors to give us a treatment plan. First it was the holidays, then it was a meeting with the cancer board, which hadn’t met at its normal time because of the holidays, then a doctor was on vacation. We were anxious and scared that the cancer would spread. The oncologist had told us to be afraid and Casey still hadn’t started chemo?! What kind of place was this?!
And then the platitudes started.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
When God closes a door, he opens a window.
God only gives us as much as we can bear.
I bore them as long as I could but they pissed me off. Because while I understood that people were unsure what to say and wanted to make us feel better, they weren’t helpful. Who wants to hear that whatever happens, it was all in God’s plan when you’re afraid your husband could die? That is NOT comforting. Don’t ever say that to me or to anyone dealing with cancer. It’s a shit thing to say.
One night after Casey fell asleep, I called my parents and woke them up. I was in hysterics. I didn’t know what to do think feel say. I didn’t know how to breathe function take care of myself. I could barely see straight. They didn’t know what to say either and whatever they did say made me scream in pain because I couldn’t handle it. I made them cry. And I felt horrible about that because they just wanted to give me solace. But I was terrified and I was angry and I needed to unleash some of that.
Eventually, I let go of some of that initial fear and started to convince myself that nothing was as bad as it seemed. I started to ignore everything except what we were currently facing. I had to deal with each day, one at a time, and look no further. I didn’t make plans beyond the week, I didn’t think about later. I focused on the right now. I had to or I would have been crushed beneath the weight of the Dread Pirate Cancer.
I had my moments, of course, times when I would call my best friend crying and she would listen, crying with me, not sure what to say but giving me what she could – an ear to listen. Once I collapsed in the middle of Kohls, sobbing about how unfair it was, how I didn’t understand. My mom ushered me to the dressing room area and a woman offered me a tissue and asked if I was all right. Most of the time I was but sometimes I wasn’t.
Some of the fear and anxiety abated when we left the hospital we started with and got him into MD Anderson – a world-renowned cancer center. The doctors there listened to us. They made a plan immediately. They started his treatment within a week. They knew what they were doing and what they were talking about.
As we stopped for lunch one day after a doctor’s visit, I asked Casey how he felt. He thought for a minute and then said he felt fine, that the only way he was going to get through this was to stay as positive as possible. He didn’t want to get depressed. He didn’t want to live in a world pervasive (okay, so he didn’t say pervasive) with fear. And then he asked me to do the same. He said he was going to need me to go against my very nature and try to be upbeat and optimistic.
“If I start to get depressed, I won’t get back up so I need you to do this for me. And if I start to feel sorry for myself or if I get down, I need you to slap me, tell me to man-up, and offer me a glass of SITFU.*”
“No, I need you do this. Promise me.”
“And if you start to get down,” here he hesitated, then finished with “I’ll give you a hug and comfort you until you feel better.”
And then he smiled at me. Smiled.
So I smiled back, against the emotions welling up inside – against the fear, the anger, the pain – and I took his hand, because I’m his wife, because I love him, and because he needed me to.
*SITFU – Suck It The Fuck Up