Time sharing with cancer

By John Aubin

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 2.12.21 PMYears ago, in the spring of 2011, my wife, Amy, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It came as a surprise to everyone, as a few years before she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the first disease was not a cause for the second. What can I say? We were ground-breaking.

The cervical cancer diagnosis was devastating (what cancer diagnosis isn’t?), and we set forward planning treatment looking for rides to appointments, and the especially sad task of telling everybody the bad news. In this sad time, one of the thoughts that occurred to me, was that we were going to lose and entire summer dealing with treatment.

There is no such thing as a Canadian who does not have a great appreciation of all things summer. Now I am aware, that I live the Toronto area, and our winter is wimpy compared to the rest of the country, but still, after a solid few months of not seeing the colour green, the renewal of spring and the warmth of summer is always welcome. The prospect of my wife being sick throughout the summer seemed unthinkable, but it was the hand we were dealt. So we dealt.

We got as much as we could out of the summer, fitting in outdoor activities in between treatments. We made the best out of a bad situation. A few months after the treatment was complete, Amy had taken some time to recuperate, and she decided that she wanted to go for a run. This was great news! It was another step in the long process of my wife getting better. This was a sign that the cancer was defeated, and the side-effects of the treatment were finally subsiding.

She returned shortly after she left, which did not really surprise me, although she was feeling the best she had in months, she was still weakened from the treatments. What did surprise me though was the look on her face. Something was wrong. And in our lives, when something goes wrong, it’s rarely something small. She told me that she made it around the corner, but then she got sick. She had coughed up some blood. A few scans later revealed that the ovarian cancer (the one from years in the past), had metastasized to her lungs.

This changes everything.

What this means for Amy is that the cancer has spread to her lungs. We can treat the new tumours, and so far the treatments have been successful in shrinking the tumours, but there is not a whole lot we can do to stop new tumours from developing. So we may get great news about how a treatment has worked, only to find a new tumour months later, and then it is back into treatment. Now it may be months, even years in between treatments, but we always know that the possibility is out there. Also, when she is between treatments, we get to deal with how the treatment is affecting the rest of her. It is no secret that chemo, radiation, and surgery can create long term issues. So when Amy is in between treatments, we learn fun things about how the years of chemo — while great at dealing with the tumours — have been less than great at helping her kidneys.

We went from fighting a battle that we could win, to learning to live with an unwanted guest that may leave from time to time, but will show up unannounced and wreak havoc on our lives. It makes us take stock of how we view cancer, and how the world views cancer.

For example, when people find out Amy is sick, they often offer pleasantries, such as, “She’s a fighter; she’ll beat it.” They mean well, but it’s a complicated situation and I can’t bring myself to agree with the statement. No amount of fight in my wife will control the tumours coming back, nor will it control the damage the treatment does to the rest of her body. I also cannot express this emotion to someone who is just trying to lift my spirits. With me, a comment like this usually results in an awkward silence, while I think of the best way to respond. In a lot of ways we feel like the whole “fight and you can beat cancer” mentality leaves us behind. I can see the merits of telling someone, when they are going their own personal cancer hell, that if they fight, they can win. But when you are dealing with someone who cannot win the fight, I’m not sure what the best way to encourage them is. And that’s a hard thing for me to admit. My one job is to encourage Amy.

I think of that cancer diagnosis back in the spring of 2011, and how I was worried about the fact that Amy would be in treatment all summer. For me this illustrates the big difference between the time when she had a cancer diagnosis, and now when her cancer is metastatic. Her original diagnosis was stressful and sad. It taxed our family in every way imaginable, but when you find that the cancer has spread, and there is the potential for it to keep spreading, you find yourself envious of the good old days when you were worried about cancer costing you a summer.

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