Building an Army

I felt like we were going to war.  Every surgery, every treatment would become a battle in the war my husband would have to wage against cancer.  I was entrenched in this war too, my experience different from his, but I also would be fighting.  Cancer had already taken both my grandmothers, as well as my father only two years before.  It was not taking my husband.

As we told our families and our friends, after getting over their own shock and horror, they wrapped around us and pledged their support. I felt like I was building my army, all of whom I would take into battle with us.  I kept this visualization with me, of rows and rows of people who loved us standing at our backs, and I drew incredible strength from this.  I know that it also gave support and motivation to my husband.

I remember reading at one point over the past year something by a doctor who treated cancer patients… He said he could always tell the ones that would pull through and make it by their attitude and determination combined with the level of support they had from their loved ones, no matter how serious their situation.  Both were required, and the support was a critical component.

I charged my army with one important task, send us positive, healing thoughts and prayers.  I felt this wave of positive energy every time I sent out an update email to the growing list of recipients and I drew on it when I needed it most.

I don’t know how many people my updates actually reached, because I know they were forwarded on to others and verbally passed on to even more.  We received cards and emails out of the blue from those who had just heard, from all over the world.  I have to think that this single collective thought of healing directed to my husband had to have some kind of impact on our universe… at the very least I felt it, and it impacted me.  To all of you I send my deepest gratitude and let you know that I have your back if ever you need me.

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The Power of Positive Thinking

People tell their children “ You can do anything if you set your mind to it”.  Is it true?  Some people say it is… “mind over matter”, “thoughts are things”, “the law of attraction”, “the power of positive thinking”, “self-fulfilling prophecy”, all curious and compelling concepts.

 A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.

After the initial shock wore off after the diagnosis… Ok that’s not true, we were still in shock and still completely without information, however almost immediately made a pact that we would be relentlessly optimistic.  We didn’t know what we were in for or what would soon be happening (we still hadn’t seen a cancer doctor yet), but we knew that there was only one option and that was to beat it.  Nothing else was acceptable.  It may not be easy, but there would always be hope.

Our friends had lent us their well-worn copy of “The Secret”.  I had read part of it before and it had made intuitive sense to me, essentially you get what you give.  Face life with positivity and good energy and that is what will flow back to you.  The book tells stories about people achieving their goals by setting the thought in their mind as if it had already happened.  The end goal was an absolute, they knew it and felt it in their bones as if it was real.  Easy enough, right?

I suggested (demanded?) to my husband that that was what he must do.  It wasn’t good enough to hope for the best, he had to know it.  He had to believe with every cell in his body that he would do it.  And so, my husband set in his mind what he thought was a reasonable goal – cancer free in one year.

Luckily for me, my husband had a track record of setting his mind to a goal and making it happen.  I had every reason to be optimistic now in this crisis.  My husband would find a way, we would find a way together.  Looking back on the year we’ve had I marvel at how mentally strong he stayed through all of this, but I’m not surprised.

If he had told the doctors in the beginning that he would be cancer free in a year, I’m sure they would have either laughed or pitied his delusional self.  He had, what we discovered later, was essentially a full blockage in his colon and inoperable multiple tumors in his liver.

It was almost exactly one year after his diagnosis that my husband was declared cancer free.

We did find a way.  Many things came together to make this happen.  But did my husbands laser focus on his goal and mental toughness throughout this ordeal play a large part?  I have no doubt in my mind.

How Do You Tell Your Kids Their Father Has Cancer?

How do you tell your kids their father has cancer?  Not only that, but the stage 4 there is no stage 5 kind of cancer.  How do you tell them this when you have only just begun to process this information yourself?

After leaving the clinic with his diagnosis, my husband and I had spent the day reeling from the news.  We revolved through feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, and grief.  We clung to each other and cried, unable to fathom what this could possibly mean for our near and distant futures. We read a few articles online as to what and how to tell your children.  Then I think we rented a funny movie and tried to take our minds off of all that had just transpired, and waited for the kids to get home from school.

We were a team, we had always been a team.  We left our hometown a month after we got married and moved to a different coast for my husband’s new job.  We had spent our entire married life together far away from our families, and what that created was our own very strong family unit.  We had no one to run to except each other when there was a problem, and I think we learned fairly quickly that communication and respect were key elements to our relationship.  This didn’t change after we had kids, they just became part of the team.

We briefly debated waiting until we had more information, until we knew what the plan was going to be before we told the kids.  But it was Friday, we weren’t going to see a doctor until Monday, and besides that, they would read it all over our faces as soon as they walked through the door.  We decide that we would just rip off the band-aid and get it over with, and then we would face it together.

I went back and found an email that I had written to my mother shortly after we told the children…

            We just told the kids… All things considered I think it went pretty well.  “Daughter (age 9)” burst into tears, but now seems calm and like she’s trying to pretend that it didn’t just happen (she’s buried it somewhere).  “Son (age 11)” was very concerned and wanted to know the odds of survival, and if dad was going to die, could he catch it?, is this the worst type of cancer?, who do we know that’s had cancer and lived?, etc. (he will stew with it I think)… Biggest concern for both is obviously is dad going to die… Heart breaking, but we managed to stay fairly calm.  Helps that we don’t have the hideous answers to these questions yet.  This has to be a bad dream right?

This began our policy of keeping the children in the loop on everything that was happening. It was important to us that they felt like we weren’t keeping anything from them.  We hoped that if they knew the plan, knew what was going to happen and when, that this would help reduce their stress and allow them to prepare for what would be happening to their father.  They were part of the team, they were part of this, and they would be onboard for all the changes we would eventually make.

The Diagnosis: Stage IV Colon Cancer

In March 2012, my husband, at the age of 39, was diagnosed (seemingly out of the blue) with stage IV colon cancer and our lives changed in an instant.  In that moment we had to find a way to deal with a crisis the likes of which we have never faced before, not only for ourselves but also for our two children.  This is just the beginning of my devastating, crazy, incredible story.

There had been no symptoms other than some bouts of constipation that had begun around Christmas 2011.  Most of the time my husband felt fine, but it was becoming more bothersome.  He made an appointment with his doctor after the holidays in January, but my husband had what he refers to as a  “blow out” the night before the appointment so when the doctor was listening to his insides everything sounded like it was “moving”.

“Don’t worry”, the doctor said “you are too young for it to be anything serious”.

In February things started acting up again, but life got so busy… we went on a vacation and then my husband went directly from there on a business trip overseas.  Unfortunately it was at the end of our vacation when he started feeling not great, and while on his business trip there were a couple of days he couldn’t work because he felt so awful.  By the time he got home and got back to the doctor it all happened very quickly.

The doctor ran blood tests which showed some abnormalities… “maybe it’s a gall stone.”  From there he was sent for an ultrasound (Tuesday) and simultaneously scheduled for a colonoscopy.  The ultrasound picked up something and he was sent for a CT scan the next day (Wednesday). Thursday he did his prep for the colonoscopy, a miserable experience, but at this point we are still not really thinking it can be anything too serious… He’s too young for it to be anything really bad (and by bad I mean cancer, we all mean cancer when we think the worst right?).

Friday morning I went with him for the colonoscopy.  While we were in the waiting room my husband’s cell phone rang and it was his doctor… They had found lesions on his liver, “it could be cancer”… This is where it starts to get really scary, we really didn’t have much time to talk before they called him in for the procedure and I was left in the waiting room with these words ringing in my ears and the look of fear that was in my husband’s eyes.

At this point I was getting very sympathetic looks from the others in the waiting room, I think they may have overheard our conversation, or maybe it’s the fact that its taking all my strength to contain the freaking out that’s going on in my head, not to completely lose it… but it leaks out every now and then.

When I’m called back to see my husband in the recovery area the doctor is there right away.  “You have stage 4 colon cancer, it has already spread to your liver, I’m so sorry” she says.  Wait, no biopsy? No waiting for the test results? And how do you know its spread? Wait, what? How can this be happening? As she explains that the tumor was so large that she could not even complete the colonoscopy, that she is so sure that she does not need to wait for the test results, that she has seen the CT scan, that he shouldn’t eat because they might want to operate right away… This is one of those times when you feel like it might really be a dream.  This isn’t actually happening is it? The nurse is hugging us… this is bad, this is really, really bad.

Coming next “Telling the Kids”…