… And how cancer affects the whole family.
I like to start my blogs by naming them, and then finding a photo to represent them. It’s the first two things I do, because for some reason it helps me delve into what I am going to write about. Sometimes I use stock photos, and sometimes I use personal ones. The photo I have started this blog with today, is a personal one.
That is my Dad, hugging my husband on our wedding day in 2011. The emotions that hit me when I saw this image overwhelmed me. My dad’s smile was so vibrant — the joy written all over his face. My dad’s face today does not exude this same glow, for the treatment has taken its toll.
Everyone that sees him these days, tells me “Hey, your Dad looks great!” and maybe that’s because they saw him when he was at his worst, or maybe they say it because alive looks better a heck of a lot better than the alternative. The truth is, I’ve had to learn to recognize this new face as my fathers. Time will continue to heal, as it does. Every time I see him, I see a little more light in his eyes — a little more spunk in his step. But, sometimes I fear he may never be the same man he was. How could he be? Grazing shoulders with death changes you. Even if your appearance begins to take its old shape, I believe, that your spirit is forever changed after illness.
My dad, now in remission (Halleluiah!) continues to face an uphill battle. After seven weeks of chemo and radiation, his body has suffered many side effects. Some that may never go away. Tinnitus (ringing in the ears,) no saliva glands and morphed taste buds – to name a few. I call it “The cancer cloud.” This big, dark rain cloud that hovers above reminding him what was, what is, and what may still be to come. Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of happy times too these days. We laugh with the kids, and we have pleasant conversations. But, I think he would agree that he is not the same man he was. In the past, he used to use humor to get through life’s tough times. Something I always found so endearing. He always knew how to make you laugh when you needed it most. We would laugh about things, when we should probably be crying. But for the second time in my life (the first perhaps to be told another day), the situation is far too serious to crack a joke about.
The first I heard about my Dad’s condition was not at the most opportune time. Although, I guess there never really is a “good” time to be told someone you love has a life threatening disease. My second born was six weeks old and tangled in monitor wires in my arms. We had been in the hospital for two days due to a viral infection. It was the most vulnerable and scared I had felt in a long time, and my parents wanting to protect me, kept things vague. It wasn’t until we had been home from the hospital for a few days and my son was recovering that my Mom mustered up the guts to tell me the diagnoses over the phone.
Squamous cell carcinoma.
The cancer had started in his tonsils and spread to his carotid artery. The tumor was large and wrapped around the artery in such a way that it was deemed “inoperable.”
It was a hot day in May. I was sitting at the patio table, Weston in my arms. Viola was playing nearby, and my husband’s gaze on me was unbreakable. I tried to look at him but I couldn’t make my eyes meet his. I tried to form words, but I could not make a sound. His intuition knowing what the news was, he placed his hand on my leg. I buried my face into Weston’s neck letting the tears fall into his chubby chin folds.
The perks about having so many doctors in our family meant that Dad would receive treatment right away. This was imperative, since he was at risk for a brain aneurism due to the tumor’s tight grip. With so much of the focus being on beating the cancer, the thing you don’t think about when talking about treatment, is the impact this illness will continue to have on the person, and their family, for many years to come. It is not like recovering from the flu and feeling that sensation of your health returning. Treatment is not a quick fix. It is stubborn and lingers much longer than anyone deserves.
I went back to the island to see him on the last day of his treatment. I was hoping the kids may lift his spirits, but I was not prepared for what seeing him would do to my spirits. When I walked into the bedroom, and saw him, I nearly fell to my knees. I don’t know what I was expecting, but nothing could have prepared me.
He was as thin as a skeleton, and his entire face looked like it has gone under construction. Even his teeth were a different shape, morphing to fit his weakened mouth. His skin was black from his mid chest, all the way up to his jaw line – charred from the radiation. What wasn’t black, was yellow, and jaundice-like. Where his chin used to dip in under his jaw and form into his neck, was loose and the skin hung down like that of a man much older than 60. I fell into him on the bed and got as close as he would let me, lying my head on his arm. I wanted to stay there forever, soaking up every minute of him.
It’s been a year since treatment, and it has not been an easy road. Not for him, or for us as a family. Sickness has so many struggles that rear their ugly heads at different times. Coming close to losing someone makes you want to spend all the time you can with them. But sometimes, illness plants itself deep within it’s host and lingers. It affects their mood, their patience, and if I am being honest, doesn’t always make them someone you find pleasant to be around. This is difficult, because you want so badly to appreciate every second you have with them. It can make you feel terribly guilty when you feel yourself feeling agitated with them. How dare you feel this way, when they could be gone right? You see… cancer is not just about the person it inhabits. It occupies the minds and hearts of all the people that surround them.
If you’re still reading this, then chances are you know someone that has suffered from this disease. Maybe that person is a survivor, or maybe they lost the battle. But either way, you carry it with you, just as I do writing this today. I don’t have the answers, and I most certainly do not have the cure. But, in struggle, our eyes are opened. I see you there, and you are not alone in this.