March wasn’t a great month. It marked a significant change in my life that I’m still trying to understand.
And two of my former co-workers died within weeks of each other. Cancer.
I hadn’t worked with them in a few years so it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it might. I guess I hadn’t worked with them or even seen them in several years and didn’t think I’d be seeing much of them again anyway. In some ways, I’d already made peace with it. It did give me pause, though. Especially for one of them. Very sweet lady. Never married. No children. Didn’t have much going on except for being active in her church and taking care of her ill parents. And by the time they passed and she was able to live her own life, she got breast cancer. So then she had to put her pursuits on hold to take care of that. And she sought treatment and wanted to continue it all the way up until the end. Died a few days after her birthday.
I looked up her obituary and it was little more than just a paragraph: she passed, her funeral was the next day, and the names of family members she left behind. A life summed up in three sentences.
People say she lost her battle with cancer. But I don’t like that phrasing. To me, people don’t ever lose to disease or depression. Because both are deadly and death cannot be defeated.
Why is it with any other form of death, it’s not a win/lose situation? You wouldn’t say someone lost their battle with a bullet or barreling bus.
Maybe it’s just me but when someone says “lost” there’s an implication of weakness. And we often equate losing with failure. But there’s nothing weak about dealing with cancer. I can’t imagine anyone stronger. In fact, as I was writing this entry, I came across an article in my local newspaper about a woman who has had cancer 3 separate times in 21 years and has managed to get rid of it every time. Think of the toll it takes on your body, your time, your energy, your mental and emotional state, and your relationships with others. Now think about having to endure that 3 separate times. No matter the outcome of that diagnosis, that requires strength.
Because, to me, life and death is not how you measure strength. Cancer will kill you. It doesn’t clear up on its own. You can’t dissolve it away by will. It requires medical intervention. You basically have to douse your whole body in poison and hope it kills enough of the bad stuff and not too much of the good stuff. No, the real strength comes from enduring those painful treatments, the drives to the hospital, the waiting rooms, the vending machine foods, the worry of it going away, of it coming back, medical bills, puking, losing all your hair and the contents of your stomach. The pain, the radiating suffering. The surgery. The hospital stays. The antiseptic smell. The needles and gluey cafeteria mashed potatoes. The tears in your family’s eyes. The chemicals leaving traces of themselves in your skin, the sadness written across the faces of those you love. And knowing all this and picking up and carrying on for another day anyway.
And even if you don’t carry on, even if you let the disease take your body, that’s not losing either. I also recently read an article about a young woman who was diagnosed with cancer and chose to travel the world with the time she had left instead of spending it in a hospital room. She chose not to seek treatment and let her cancer run its course. It’s all a personal choice and one that should be respected. You wanna fight this head on or you wanna let nature take over? Either way, it’s a tough choice. And accepting the inevitable requires a certain strength and resolve as well.
I think about my former coworker lying in a hospice bed. The last thing she said to her caretaker was she wanted to get out of that bad and back to a hospital for treatment. She knew if she could just get more treatment, she would be okay. She was always stubborn like that. Refused assistance. Determined to take care of her parents, and eventually herself, all on her own. But she was beyond treatment. And she lay there and she closed her eyes and her mouth and a few days later, she died. But she didn’t lose.
I spoke too soon about my grandmother’s nose. While I was surprised it hadn’t been completely taken off as I was led to believe by my mom, her cancer has gotten worse. After the initial surgery to cut out the Merkel cancer, it returned and she had to have a second operation to go in and take out more. They took the tip of her nose. They already have another surgery scheduled. They are going to remove her nose completely. And her dementia is worsening. She doesn’t even know what’s going on. She thinks she’s getting a brand new nose. She’ll be lucky to get a prosthetic one.
My uncle, her primary caretaker, is also suffering from a touch of dementia as well. So, he can’t take care of her. Enter my mother, who has to do it all.
While my mother was gone to be with my grandmother for her second surgery earlier this month, my dad had a birthday. I gave him a card and he set me down and we had a conversation. Like, an actual conversation. Well, what could be equated to an actual conversation. He mostly talked to me and my responses mostly went ignored as he continued with his monologue. He was the one who told me the doctors were going to take off my grandmother’s nose. I was at work during her second surgery when Mom called Dad and told him and then he told me.
He also told me that he was getting a promotion at his job. Sounds like good news. But he doesn’t want to take it. He doesn’t want all the extra responsibility. In fact, he was planning on retiring in the next year or so. But due to insurance, he wants to keep his job. He’s worried about my mom’s job. Her hours have been cut at work the past couple of weeks. This isn’t an abnormal occurrence but it still worries them. I guess he’s worried about retiring and then Mom might lose her job and then they’ll be in trouble.
My hours have been cut at work as well. In half. Again, this isn’t abnormal. And they always get cut after Christmas. It’s a slow time. But things have been going downhill since the middle of last year. My hours have steadily decreased and I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t so temporary after all. So, I’m not really contributing to the family and I think everyone is aware of that. Since they don’t think I’m going to step up, my dad is, taking on a position he doesn’t want and picturing himself working about five years more than he had originally planned, just to help keep up afloat.
I asked him why he would take it if he didn’t want to and he repeated that he did it because of my mom. He’ll be making more money and having more responsibility but he is doing it to support her, both financially and I suppose as a gesture of love. My chest felt like ice cubes dipped in hot chocolate. I know my dad loves my mom and my sister and me. He just doesn’t say it. But he shows it, in those kind of ways, ways a man raised to be hard shows his love. It’s with money. It’s with hard work. It’s with doing the kind of things you don’t want to do in order for your family to be more comfortable. And that was great. And that was the hot chocolate feeling. But I didn’t want him to be unhappy with his new position. That’s where the ice cubes come into play. And I told him this. He shook his head in a dismissive manner. “I’ll just have to learn to like it,” he said.
He works with my uncle and so he’s seen the progression of his mental deterioration as well. He told me it’s getting worse. They often have to work out of town and he told me my uncle’s balance is so bad that he is constantly falling out of the work vehicles and often falls out of the small hotel showers. The past few times I saw my uncle, I did notice he was covered in small scratches.
My grandmother’s health has been declining over the past few years. It’s been in small stages. She’s fallen. She’s developed arthritis. She’s become forgetful. She can’t start sentences without stopping to correct herself. She’s become slovenly. She’s frequently light-headed and has intense, reoccurring bouts of shoulder pain. My mother takes her to the doctor to soothe the aches and check on the pains. These trips used to be infrequent but with each day, there seems to be a new ailment that needs to be mended and monitored, so now the ventures are commonplace.
And now my grandmother has skin cancer. Specifically, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a particularly rare and aggressive form of cancer that is not playing around.
It started when my mother noticed a growth on my grandmother’s nose. They went to the doctor to get it checked out. There was a series of appointments and a biopsy. That’s when they got the cancer diagnosis. They were referred to another doctor. Between doctor visits, the growth grew in size and severity. Like I said, this cancer doesn’t joke. It spreads fast.
It was decided by her doctor that the cancer had to be cut out. There was a possibility it could even spread to her lymph nodes. I worried because her surgery was scheduled about two weeks after her latest appointment. What if the cancer got worse in the mean time?
Surgery day came and while I was at work, Mom texted me with updates. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes but the doctor did take a large chunk out of my grandmother’s nose.
Afterward, they spoke with a plastic surgeon who offered some not-so-great options for reconstructive surgery, including pulling her forehead skin down or pulling her cheek over and using the tissue to fill in the gap in her nose. These methods would mean multiple surgeries, all of which would require my grandmother to go under anesthesia again, and at her age, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.
It’s especially not a good idea because not only has my grandmother lost her nose but she’s essentially losing her mind as well. My mom told me she suspected my grandmother is suffering from mild dementia. I could have told her that. I’ve noticed it for years now. I don’t know if my mom has only started noticing it due to being around my grandmother so much due to the multiple doctor visits or if she’s just been in denial and can no longer refute the obvious.