Archives for July 2016

Dear Cancer Patient – Your First Week

Dear Cancer Patient – Your First Week

Dear Cancer Patient,

You’ve always hoped never to meet someone like me, but now the unthinkable has happened. Maybe you noticed a lump or a cough, or maybe a routine X-ray turned out to be not so routine after all. You’ve probably spent weeks, maybe months, wondering what was going on and what it all means.

And you’ve spent an unimaginable amount of time in terrible suspense.

But you are not alone. And the answers are coming.

You don’t have to learn everything, read everything, in the next two weeks. You will learn about your cancer, and understand it as well as we do sooner than you think. We want you to understand. We’ll help you understand. But it can’t happen overnight, and you’re in a terrible, frightened hurry right now. You fear your cancer is rushing through you, gaining on you every minute, and you want it cut, burned, or blown out of you, by any means necessary.

But your cancer, no cancer, moves that fast. What you need right now is a deep, full breath, and a well thought-out plan.

You may hate us for counseling patience right now, for not making a headlong charge, for taking more time to understand the enemy you’re facing. But it’s the smart move.

You need smart right now.

We’ll move as fast as we can. It won’t feel fast enough, but that’s because we’re moving with very careful steps.

And we can help you, whatever comes.

The Dance

The Dance

The last time I saw her, we both knew what was about to happen.

The sudden change in her cancer’s behavior, its recent appearance in her brain and spinal cord, had unsteadied her steps. She was now, too suddenly, in a wheelchair – though it might’ve been the only visible clue that she was dying: her cheeks were still full and colorful, and she still smiled and laughed easily. She was still too young and too lovely, a woman who deserved much more time than she was going to get, with a family that deserved more time with her than they were going to have.

She’d let me be her doctor for four years, and now my bag of tricks was empty.

We’d talked for years about the arrival of this day, not knowing exactly when it would come or what it would look like. Over four years we were gentle but nervous partners in a peculiar dance. She’d step through symptom descriptions, trying not to make too much of small things but worrying she’d leave out a critical detail. I’d analyze intently, looking for patterns but cautious to avoid over-interpretation, and all the while trying to anticipate what she needed and wanted to know. I’m not sure we were ever graceful, but we did develop a comfortable rhythm.

But one day about two years before she died, she interrupted our usual waltz with an uncharacteristically direct question. I was explaining that her current treatment wasn’t working anymore, that it was time to change to a different one, and was going over the schedule and potential upside when she interrupted me.

“Does this mean it’s getting closer?” she’d asked simply.

Her face made clear what she meant by “it”.

My ears were ringing a little as I tried to find the answer that would be truthful, but still easy for her to hear – the one that would tell her she was going to be all right and not to worry and to please please don’t cry, the one that would still let me be the comforter and the good guy, and would somehow make me ok with this unfolding tragedy.

I looked in my dance partner’s eyes, at the earnest sincerity behind her question, and took a breath.

“Yes. That’s what it means.”

And then we sat quietly together for a while.