My husband, Don, told me I had cancer. Well, he confirmed it, really.
Two days earlier, on April 6, 1993, I'd found lumpy, hard growths on my neck. Since I was a physician, I examined myself right away. What could they mean?
Within a few minutes I knew—these were lymph nodes and they were full of cancer.
But I couldn't be certain—not until I'd had a lymph node removed and studied under a microscope. So after the surgery on April 8, I awoke to find Don sitting by my bed.
I blinked as I opened my eyes and tried to focus on his. He waited. Slowly my brain cleared. I searched Don's face and saw concern.
"Is it cancer?" I asked. He nodded and gently took my hand. I couldn't breathe. Cancer.
Am I going to die? I wondered. Will I leave behind this sweet man to rear our two toddlers on his own?
"It's Hodgkin's lymphoma," he added. Hodgkin's? I knew that Hodgkin's is treatable. The vice-grip around my chest loosened, and I could breathe again.
Treating cancer means chemotherapy or radiation, and maybe more surgery. And I knew how fatigued people going through cancer treatment became. I wouldn't be able to keep up with everything that needed to be done at home. In my medical practice, I'd seen marriages break up as a result of one mate having cancer. I wondered about my marriage. How will this affect us? Will Don trudge along with me on this path? Will he grow tired from the stress and caregiving, and leave me?
"There's a long, hard road ahead," I said tentatively, wondering what his response would be.
"Yes," he said, giving my hand a squeeze, "and we'll walk it together." I was comforted for the moment. But the road still lay ahead.
I'd remember that hand squeeze many times during the following months of cancer treatment. I'd need the reminder that Don and I were a team. Especially since too often emotionally we were on different timetables.
Our anniversary fell two days after my diagnosis, so we celebrated our 11 years together at a restaurant. The previous 48 hours had been a whirlwind, keeping us from discussing how my diagnosis was impacting us. Now Don was ready to talk. But strangely, I wasn't—something unusual for me since I'm always ready to discuss feelings and emotions.
"I don't want to lose you," he said, his voice quavering.
I smiled and thought, How sweet, but his words didn't touch me. It was as if there were a thick cushion between my outer self and my inner feelings, and I just couldn't force myself to talk about my diagnosis and the future.
Sensing that, Don looked at me with a pained expression. Hastily, I told him I loved him, but I felt disconnected from him—from everything.
A few days later, my tears arrived and I longed to go back to that evening at the restaurant, and a chance to share deeply with Don. The only problem was that although Don tried to console me, by then he was back to his usual logical self. That window to his emotions had closed.
Cancer proceeded to disrupt our lives—and our future plans—shattering the illusion that we had life under control. Within a week, with our two toddlers in tow, Don and I traveled from our home in Louisiana to Washington, D.C.'s Lombardi Cancer Center. After being evaluated, I learned the first two weeks of chemotherapy would be given at Lombardi, and later doses at my Louisiana oncologist's office.
"I'll fly home with the kids," Don said, "so you can stay here at your parents' house and get some rest in between your appointments." Though my exhausted body was thrilled at his offer, my mind was conflicted. His offer was a sacrifice, since he'd have to arrange babysitting during work hours and the task of caring for toddlers would be waiting for him once he got home. But more fundamentally I didn't like the way my roles were shifting. My functions as a wife and mother were being ripped from me.
After dropping Don and the kids at the airport, I cried on the way back to my parents' house. Does Don know I miss him and our kids? Does he know I'd rather be home with them?
But Don understood. When he called, I could almost hear him smile. "Amy, don't worry, we haven't forgotten you. You're an integral part of this family. And I love you." "Thanks, Don," I said. "I needed to hear that."
Out of order
Don also had struggles. He's the kind of guy who likes his future to be orderly, reasonable, scheduled, and predictable. Even though my physicians had decided on a treatment plan, they couldn't know how my body would respond. When my blood's infection-fighting cells were too few to receive the next dose of medicine on time, or when I was too exhausted to go on a scheduled outing, Don battled within himself to accept the new plan.
"I hate how cancer causes upheaval in our lives," he told me one evening after I was too ill to help make supper and get our children ready for bed. "Living with the shifting reality of cancer is like hiking with a blister—it's always present and always irritating."
Don's way of dealing with our unsettled lives was to retreat emotionally—to grow quieter and less available for conversation. But the changes were difficult for me, too. I needed him to talk, both to help me adjust and to give me a glimpse into his inner world. So many times, I felt helpless and alone, and I'd wonder, At the end of this ordeal will we be closer, or will we have grown apart?
I remember the day I was told I'd need two more months of chemotherapy after already completing the initial treatment plan of six months. Tests showed my tumor, though tiny, was still shrinking. Perhaps a few stubborn cancer cells were still lurking. While I wanted to kill those cells, I also yearned for a normal life again—a life without doctor visits and thick fatigue. I shared my disappointment with Don, but his few comments in reply were unemotional and rational.
"The time to beat that cancer is now."
"I know that, Don. I just want you to acknowledge how difficult this is for me—for all of us. As much as I appreciate the help friends have given us, I wish I could care for our family's needs again. Don't you want our lives back to normal?"
"Of course I wish this were all over," he agreed. Then after a moment, he said, "I haven't been looking at it from your perspective. To be honest, most of the time I've looked at it from a selfish perspective of what this is doing to me. I'm sorry about that. Tell me how I can best help you."
Finally, I felt as though we'd broken through our disconnectedness. I smiled. "You can start by giving me a hug."
A turning point
After that, Don looked for ways to share his feelings with me. At times when fatigue kept me in bed and he had to care for fussy children alone, he let me know—somehow without making me feel inadequate—how frustrated he felt at having to be a "single parent." He also shared how strained he felt keeping our scattered family informed of how I was doing. Being a spokesman was a full-time job in itself.
He also helped me feel good about myself. My hair had been steadily thinning, and I knew I'd soon be bald.
"I guess I'm going to be unattractive to you without hair," I said.
But Don shook his head. "You'll be just as beautiful then as you are now."
A continuing struggle for me was the way chemotherapy blenderized my brain for several days after each dose. I know it was difficult for Don, too, when I couldn't have an intelligent conversation. My fuzzy brain just wouldn't cooperate. That made Don feel lonely, which saddened me, but there wasn't much I could do about it. "I'm not the woman you married," I told him, "at least my brain isn't the same."
My awareness seemed to encourage him. "It's okay," he said, "I'll make the day-to-day decisions right now—but I sure look forward to when you can think clearly again."
And I never appreciated Don more than when my anxiety peaked. Will the catheter that delivers my chemotherapy become infected? Will the medicine shrink my tumors? What if I die?
During one of my self-pitying moments, I decided I was probably going to die, and so I needed to make sure Don was taken care of after I was gone. He should remarry, and I was going to figure out to whom.
I chose someone, but then fretted that she wouldn't take as good care of our children as I would have. So I became upset at Don for marrying her, and at her—this interloper—for marrying him. I became short with him, easily frustrated, and snippy. Don, though, had no idea why!
Finally, God got hold of my mind and helped me realize these crazy thoughts needed to change.
Anxiety was eating me up, making me irritable. Hiding the reason for my brooding from Don meant he couldn't help bear my burden, and I wasn't giving our relationship an opportunity to grow stronger through the shared experience of those difficult months.
So one morning several months into my treatment, before the kids were awake, I unloaded my fears.
He listened, nodding and looking thoughtful.
Then he pointed to the greeting card on the dresser. Soon after my diagnosis, a friend had sent me the card inscribed with the words from Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"
"We don't know our future," Don said, "but God does. And we know God." Then he suggested we pray. I remember vividly one sentence of that prayer because my heart grew calm as he spoke it, and I clung to it for months afterward. "God," he prayed, "we know you love us, and we know you have our best interests at heart. We trust you, Lord."
Looking ahead The final months of treatment seemed to crawl by; so when I was declared to be in remission in January 1994, Don and I celebrated over dinner at a restaurant.
"I'm looking forward to having an ordinary day," I told him, "just feeling good and not thinking about cancer."
"Me, too," he said, "but you know, Amy, our lives will never be the same. What's 'normal' has changed for us, forever."
"I've thought about that a lot," I told him. "Even if I live until I'm 90, I'll always have had cancer. But I know that God has my life in his hands, and that you and I have gone through this time of suffering for some purpose." Then I reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. "And I'm looking forward to discovering what that purpose is together."
Amy Givler, m.d., is author of
Hope in the Face of Cancer: A Survival Guide for the Journey You Did Not Choose(Harvest House).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.