Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Five year anniversary

This month marks the five-year anniversary of Mat's cancer diagnosis.

It's hard to sum up my feelings about that, but I'll try.

1. It's amazing

I remember talking on the phone to a radiologist friend after we found out that the euphemistic "mass" in Mat's abdomen was cancer. Mat was still in the hospital, recovering from surgery, and I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom. I seem to remember that it was dark, but I don't know why I would have had the lights off. Maybe it just felt dark.

My friend was saying, "Of course we know that miracles can happen, but it's good to have a clear head about the facts. We don't know what type of pancreatic cancer Mat has, but let's assume it's the more common kind. Localized pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of 20 percent."

The conversation went on a little longer, but I have no idea how I held up my end because my head was spinning. "Twenty percent? Five-year survival?" I couldn't grasp those miserable prospects for surviving the first five years, let alone understand why survival was measured for only five year. In five years, Mat would be 39. What about the other 40 or so years he owes me? What about growing old together?

Now I understand that five years after a cancer diagnosis, people are mostly either cured or dead. Mat is not cured, but he's NOT DEAD!

Or, as he likes to quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I'm not dead yet." (Insert British accent here.)

2. It's stressful and sad and hard

Although Mat has spent nearly two of the last five years in remission, the last 2 1/2 years have been spent in an unrelenting struggle with cancer. He's had three major surgeries, a sprinkling of non-surgery-related hospital stays, five or six (seven?) different chemotherapy drug regimens to try to control the cancer growth, and a slow progression through three major types of narcotics to deal with the pain associated with cancer.

Life is constantly changing, sometimes in a way that seems like a slow downward spiral. Constant adjustments to a "new normal" are hard to keep up with, especially when the new normal seems to involve less -- less time spent out of bed, less energy, less strength, less time left.

3. It's amazing

I've spent some time thinking about my situation, and constructing a strange sort of ideal world. In this world, Mat still has cancer. There's nothing I can do about that. But in this imaginary cancer-world, I have all the things I need to make life as good as possible for Mat, the kids, and me. Here's what I would have in this ideal world:

1. A friend I could call anytime, day or night
2. Help with childcare as needed for medical appointments, errands, and R&R
3. Help with household chores like food shopping and preparation
4. A Mat who is willing to keep trying to stick around for me and the kids as long as possible
5. Money to pay the mortgage
6. A prescription for anti-depressants, as needed
7. A partner who understands my particular brand of insanity and loves me anyway
8. A steady flow of inspiration and wisdom from books, friends, talks
9. An awareness of God's love for me

The list goes on, but it didn't take me long to see that my ideal world ... is my world. Friend I can call at 3 a.m.? Check. Help with childcare? Check. Food that can be on the table with less than five minutes of prep work? Check. Money to cover the mortgage? Check.

What's more, after I made my list I started to see ways that my real world was better than my ideal cancer-world. Is there even one house anywhere in the whole Boston area that dampens noise like ours? I think the kids could throw large rocks at each other downstairs and the oasis of quiet that exists in the third-floor master bedroom would not be disturbed. (Heads up: if you come to our house and ring the doorbell, Mat will not hear it. Bring a cell phone and call him from the front porch instead.)

Now if we could just get the hot water heater to be a little less temperamental ...