The Other Side: From Cancer Patient to Anxious Daughter

Entering the New Year with Cancer

Is anyone else looking forward to 2012? Normally I dread the end of another year for selfish but not atypical reasons: I’m that much older, I have not completed most of the last year’s resolutions, and I’ll have to come up with a whole new list of goals that will likely also go unaccomplished. A time to reassess life and sigh.

However, with 2011 being such a delight, I am, perhaps for the first time in my life, looking forward to the new year. I pray that this year was rock bottom. If it gets any worse, I’m going to crawl into bed and never leave.

Dad's Gallbladder Surgery

I am back again in the hospital I frequented during my cancer treatments, but this time my father is the patient. He came to the emergency room after a day of extreme abdominal pain and discovered he needed to have his gallbladder removed. I heard the news at three in the morning and had an absolutely wretched night of imagining the worst. In fact I was an absolute wreck until I saw him in the recovery room at 4:30 pm the next day. I’m not sure if my own family felt this way, but based on this experience, I feel sure that surgery is one of the most harrowing experiences, no matter what side of it you are on.

Even now my stomach is squirming. I’m not sure I’ll be able to relax until he is out of here. Have you ever noticed how small people look in a hospital bed? Maybe it’s because we don’t often stand over people who are lying down. My dad is not a small guy, but he looks tiny in a hospital bed. People look so fragile and innocent in sleep. It always makes me envision them as a small child, curled up in bed.

I haven’t been this nervous since my own surgery. The worst part was waiting in the private room before surgery. I kept feeling like I needed to say something important, like goodbye in some meaningful way, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to crack jokes and distract him, but I couldn’t think of any. I looked deep in the eyes of every nurse and surgeon who approached, trying to read how competent and compassionate they were and silently sending the message that my Dad is everything to me and if they hurt him I would hunt them down. The rest of the time I just prayed and bargained.

The waiting room is a little better, only because it feels more like a doctor’s office and you know everyone there is in the same boat. And there is more to distract you. I understand, but do not really like, the surgery number system. You watch a screen, looking for the number that correlates to your family member and it updates you periodically on their status. However, 1) it feels wrong to have your beloved reduced to a number, especially when they are so vulnerable and 2) it’s not like the updates are 100% accurate; they aren’t going to announce, “Oops we botched the surgery, he’s dead now” on a bulletin board.

I can see why Sartre envisioned Hell as a waiting room.

There are so many things about hospitals that I do not like and/or understand such as why the Starbucks closes at 3pm, why they do not keep enough staff members employed to perform scheduled operations, why it is as cold as a meat locker. Why do they have a television set in the hallway where no one can sit to watch it? And why is it always playing images of the ocean? Why is there gravel on the roof? Why is the produce here better than at the grocery store? Why cover pre-op patients in white sheets? It feels almost obscene, like a bad omen or preemptive measure. And again, what is WITH hospital gowns?

Update on Dad's Progress

I can’t wait to get out of here, but it looks like we are at the mercy of the anesthesiologists. While the first surgery was successful, he still has a gallstone stuck in a duct that will have to be removed endoscopically. There was a 3% chance of this happening. Remember how I said I don’t have the greatest luck with statistics? Apparently that applies to all in this family. There is a 1% chance that this second procedure will not be successful and he will need a third surgery, this time open (ie. more dangerous). Dad says he’s already counting on it.

Fortunately we have cynical humor on our side. Half the staff loves him because he keeps cracking corny jokes about how they’ve got the wrong man, and he needs to leave for a dental appointment but will be right back, and how the surgery doesn’t seem to have worked because he still has plenty of gall. The other half just rolls their eyes.

How many surgeons go into the operating room knowing that they hold not one life in their hands, but the lives of everyone who loves that patient?


Can You Make Meaning of Madness?: The Why Cancer, Why Me Issue

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we would never have found out that it has no meaning; just as, if there was no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.” –C.S.Lewis

The Madness of Cancer

Does anyone else feel the sudden intensified pressure to make meaning of their life? Or perhaps more accurately, to make their life meaningful? I have always wanted to make something of myself, but lately I feel a bit panicky about it. I don’t want to label it a “bucket list” mentality, because that would mean that on some level I suspect I might die (even with the odds against it), but that is what it feels like. Like my life “to do” list is not getting done and may never get done.

I’ve written before about needing to make sense of having a disease. Of needing it to fit within my “everything happens for a reason” comfort zone. Something like, what good is having cancer if you can’t make something of it? Does that sound as insane as it feels?

This need is part of the reason I have been returning to community service, which, regrettably, I have foregone since high school. My church hosts an Agape Meal every week and for about six weeks now I have been serving or table hosting. All the local poor and homeless are invited to come enjoy a sit-down family-style meal for an evening. It’s not exactly grueling labor, but it’s both difficult and rewarding for me because it takes me out of my comfort zone.

My mother and I lived in a homeless shelter when I was very young. I don’t remember the experience at all, but this knowledge has molded me as a constant “count your blessings” reminder. I cannot look at a homeless person without imagining myself in their place. A lot of people I know and love, my husband included, are “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” meritocracy types, but I have always known that I am just a few short steps or misfortunes from being back there.

Last week at the meal, I met a young man who had an eerily similar bad year to mine. In one year he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lost his health insurance, lost his job and had his bank accounts wiped out. He said that these misfortunes were “his story,” and that no good story is devoid of conflict. As every writer knows, conflicts are often the make or break of a good story. This man's conflicts led him to change his life, become a preacher, and share his story with everyone he meets.

In truth, his story is scarier than mine. But I’m still a tad bit jealous. After all, he got his meaning. His disease really did turn his life around. I am pretty much the exact same person I was before, doing a lot of the same things.

Before I went into the hospital for my surgery, I was half convinced I was going to die. (After you are diagnosed with cancer, pessimism starts to look more and more like pragmatism). So I vowed never to waste another moment of my life doing stupid trivial things like watching TV or reading Yahoo articles. But I still watch an unhealthy amount of TV and I read two completely useless Yahoo articles today, one on spouses who cheat (which ironically belied it’s thesis of “you shouldn’t” with five examples of women who are happier because they did), and one about how having a dog prepares you for having a baby (most if not all also apply to cats). Thank god I don’t have an iPhone.

Am I still wasting my life? Certainly large portions of it could be better spent. But I think if I tried to make every single moment count, I would go insane (or more insane). It’s just too much pressure to operate under. And many of my recent experiences have been meaningful, even if I haven’t quite yet figured out what the meaning is.

My experiences with the homeless have changed. I am used to seeing someone on a corner and feeling that instant combination of heartbreak, shame, and fear. I’ll give them money and feel guilty for not doing more or look straight ahead, ashamed because I cannot or should not be giving away money.

But now, it isn’t just seeing some guy on the corner. It’s Malcolm, whom I broke bread with not an hour before. Or Suzie, whose oldest boy (of five) just turned fourteen. I’m not at all sure that my volunteering for an hour has any lasting impact on their lives. But I’m hoping these little changes make an impact on mine. Then maybe one day I can say, “Yes, it was hard, but it made me a better person.”