November 5, 2010

Guest Column: The husband of a cancer patient learns more than just caregiving


I remember the exact time my cell phone rang. It was 6:55 p.m. I was just about to enter the classroom to teach a course in American government. It was my wife, Rose, and I thought it strange she would be calling me just before class. I suspect she knew I was on a tight schedule, as she straightaway informed me her latest biopsy had come back positive.

Before I could respond, she quickly related that it was a Stage 0 breast cancer, and the survival rate was 98 percent. Only then did I get to speak.

Let me back up a bit. That morning, I knew Rose had an appointment for the results from her stereotactic biopsy. We had become almost immune to them, as this was her third such procedure in as many years.

The previous two had come back negative, nothing more than calcifications.

Neither of us gave it much thought that morning and by almost 7 p.m., the appointment had completely slipped my mind. Little did I know that the late call was the result of her being informed of the new results, followed by a lengthy discussion with her surgeon and then making the phone call to me.

When I made it home late than night, we proceeded to do virtually all of the things the medical professions warn against. We tried to decipher the strange terminology on the biopsy report, using the Internet as a Rosetta stone. “If this is Stage 0, why is this type of cancer cell rated the most aggressive?” we pondered as continued to read beyond our comprehension level.

This little side excursion set up a week of worry until we could get in front of the radiologist who would treat her after a surgical lumpectomy. Balancing the sensitivity of the situation with our na´vetÚ, as soon as I expressed my concern, he responded with a twinkle in his eye and the slightest of smiles

“Yes, you have the most aggressive form of the least aggressive breast cancer one can have." That statement set both of us straight as far as self-diagnosing was concerned.

After this meeting, our spirits buoyed, we discussed our situation in more depth. Who do we tell? Do we bring it up first or let others ask? How much do we want to talk about it amongst ourselves? What role did Rose want me to play?

One thing I learned as a spouse is that the person with the cancer should set the agenda. And for once in my married life, I actually learned that listening and executing is not only necessary, but a trait married men actually can learn.

On one point, Rose was adamant — she didn’t want the cancer to dominate her interactions with other people or with me. The “other people” for the most part seemed to sense this. Perhaps our culture is learning how to interact with cancer patients, especially where breast cancer is concerned. By the time one is my age, those one in 11 odds of a woman being diagnosed translates into a lot of up close and personal interactions with the disease.

As for me, it wasn’t quite as easy to put it in the background.

First of all, you know your spouse is worried and scared, no matter how bright the prognosis. Even with Stage 0 breast cancer, life is no picnic. There is a lumpectomy, then two months of radiation treatments. The radiation left Rose with some nasty burns and significant exhaustion.

She is a CPA, and all of this occurred during the beginning of “tax season." Then came the hormone suppressant treatments which caused joint pain and more exhaustion until the doctors hit on the right drug.

I recently had left a career in banking to launch a new business venture, so luckily I had the time to make doctor’s appointments, do work around the house, and run all the errands. Apparently, I also had more time to become overly involved.

I thought I was doing a good job of putting concern about the cancer on the back-burner until one day at work, after I had finished a phone conversation with Rose, one of my co-workers noted “You are awfully protective of her when she calls. You always ask if she is OK."

My friend meant this as a compliment, but I took it as a warning. Maybe I was over-reacting.

Rose had never complained, but I dialed back a bit and her mood seemed to lighten. A lesson for spouses — while you worry about them, they are worried about how much you are worried — a double-whammy for the cancer patient. It’s your job to reduce that worry by exactly half.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion my reaction was normal.

Rose and I have been married 25 years. We’ve both had very successful careers and set ourselves up for what we hope will be a comfortable and fun-filled retirement. We love almost all of the same things— beaches, travel, birdwatching, baseball, food experiences, games, and enjoying life with our friends. We are, in short, each other’s best friend.

Any one of us can be taken from this life at any time and each of us learns to accept that eventuality. Cancer doesn’t put a finer point on this prospect, it hits you in the face like one of those e-mails in all caps—CANCER.

We are through the treatments and even with the prognosis, like many others who put their thoughts to words, we still look over our shoulders every once in a while. In fact, six months after radiation treatments were completed, Rose had another mammogram and this time there was a suspicious formation in her other breast.

A fourth stereotactic biopsy and the seemingly endless waiting for the results consumed us again. This time, it was negative, but it serves as a reminder that once cancer enters your lives, it’s like those damn New York Yankees — always there lurking in the background and never quite out of the picture.

And good things can come from the experience. I firmly believe our marriage is better. Yes, we still fuss and fight, which is normal. But other concerns seem less invasive — work, money, trivial disagreements. Without saying a word or discussing it, we find ourselves accepting more dinner invitations with friends. We’re scheduling vacations further in advance and jumping into trips and experiences we might have passed on before.

I’ve always eschewed cruises, yet both of us jumped at the chance to take one with several friends next fall. I learned I love the grocery store and have taken a sudden interest in cooking things beyond the grill. I still avoid the vacuum cleaner, so it’s not a total transformation.

But the most positive result was the realization that caregivers can make all the difference in the world, and if you remember that, cancer can also change your life and your relationships for the better.

About the Get Pinked! Campaign

How can you Get Pinked? Raise $1,000 and partner with The Outer Banks Hospital's Get Pinked! Campaign to fight breast cancer in Dare County. The goal is to give every woman and man in Dare County the very best chance to survive the disease of breast cancer. For more information, call the hospital's Development Office at 252-449-9183.

About The Outer Banks Hospital Development Council

The Outer Banks Hospital Development Council is a subsidiary of University Health Systems Foundation in Greenville. The mission of the Council is to develop relationships and secure financial resources to support the health and wellness services of The Outer Banks Hospital. Council members have raised funds to underwrite the costs of projects from the opening a Cancer Resource Center located in the Medical Office Building adjacent to the hospital and purchasing technology and equipment for the identification and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

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