Ann’s husband, Bob, an orthopedic surgeon, father and grandfather, was 78 years old when he died of lung cancer, leaving Ann to figure out how to fill the holes in her life and in her heart.
Bob was concerned about an irregularity on the skin of his ear. He thought it might be a melanoma. The doctor agreed and wanted to take a PET scan of his ear, mouth and whole neck and head region, just to make sure it wasn’t anywhere else. When they did, they found two nodules on his lung and thorax. That’s when it all started.
He worried about cancer, and I know we talked about it at home long before he received a diagnosis. Despite being a doctor, he was a smoker most of his life. He had given it up five years earlier but knew he should be worried about it. Still, hearing the word cancer from the doctor after the scan, my heart sank. You can’t really balance your emotions after news like that. Bob was very stoic about it and I wanted to go along with how he was feeling, which was that he would be treated and be ok. So, I didn’t want to seem too upset. But as soon as you hear the word cancer, your heart is in your throat, or in your feet.
Understanding the Truth
The treatment plan was radiation, 15 minutes a day, five times a week, then chemo once every three weeks. At first the radiation was fine, but after the second week, he was tired and would nap. And then he was very tired, and his throat hurt, and he couldn’t swallow. The doctor prescribed medicine to make it easier, but still it got harder. Then, after radiation, he had to start the chemo. He couldn’t drink much because his throat was so inflamed, so he became dehydrated. He had to get saline drips frequently. Then he started to need blood transfusions, two at a time. It was an all-day affair. And because he couldn’t eat, he was losing weight, even though he drank a lot of ensure. So, he stopped doing his usual activities—he kept losing his balance.
Bob had asked the oncologist right away, “How many years have I got?” The doctor said maybe five. That got to us both right away. It may sound like a long time but it’s not. Bob was upset and kept thinking about all the things he was going to miss with the family—he was always very focused on his family. He was concerned that he might not be around to see bar mitzvahs and weddings, or to take care of me. But who knew that it wouldn’t be five and there wouldn’t even be a few good years in there. Even though he never complained, he was very analytical and understood exactly what was happening. But I was beside myself.
What You Do
I gave up everything that I usually did. Instead, I drove him to see oncologists, neurologist, for blood typing, etc. I sat in hospitals and doctor offices every single day for hours. I pushed his chair when he couldn’t walk. And I didn’t complain. It’s just what you do. I’m a realist and at times like this, not that emotional. I understood that this was what it was. But it broke my heart when I saw him losing weight and being so tired. I’ve known him practically his whole life and he had always been a big, strong, strapping guy. He was a disciplined athlete, but so much had changed. The hardest part was seeing the deterioration of someone you love, from being so active to not being able to do anything anymore.
At one point, because he couldn’t eat, he was getting weaker and weaker and ended up in the hospital. He had lost a lot of strength and couldn’t walk. Then he got pneumonia. His body seemed to shut down. We were encouraged because even though he was in the ICU for his pneumonia, a local rehab facility accepted him. We were so happy, because that meant they thought he would recover. But then, he just couldn’t get out of bed. It was around then, about two weeks before his death, that I thought he wasn’t going to recover. I had the feeling that he was not going to get out of the hospital. It was very sad, but I knew I couldn’t show it. I had to be strong for him and the family.
Afraid to Leave
It was horrible watching that progression. Coming home by myself from the hospital, I didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to do anything. My kids and friends reminded me to not get sick, not to let myself get run down. In fact, one of the things that helped was all the friends that would come see him and be supportive of me. That made a huge difference. Especially when friends would call and ask, “What’s happening with Robert? And how are you doing?” Just knowing that people cared and were thinking of me made it a little better.
The best support I could offer as a caregiver was being willing to do anything he needed, being there and being supportive. Sometimes that meant holding his hand. Sometimes it meant going to the drug store or the grocery store for his needs or whims. But there were times I felt, why is this happening to us? It was hard not to be upset about that and what life had given us to deal with. And it got harder as the weeks went on and I could see that it was not getting better. I was afraid to leave the house. What if he fell or needed something and couldn’t get it? I would rush to get home when I had any errand to do.
Needing a Miracle
Somehow, you just do it. But you don’t have a chance to replenish yourself. I didn’t do what I would usually do. Instead, we would sit and read together, or watch sports together. Friends would come over and I would cook dinner just to have people in the house. I kept trying to get people to engage with him, thinking a little social interaction, even if not normal, would be good. And, when people came over, I could leave because I knew someone was there. It allowed me to take a back seat in his care for brief times.
As his disease progressed, I noticed a change in his mental state. I’m not sure he realized it, but he was forgetting things. He had always been so sharp. He used to love doing the crossword puzzle and would always grab the Sunday magazine section as soon as the paper arrived. But, in the last two months, he didn’t even attempt the crossword puzzle. That was a real sign of deterioration. I think by then he realized that he was fading.
When you watch someone deteriorating like that, even though you’re doing all that you should, it’s very frustrating. You are helpless as you watch the loss of everything you love. Everybody tried so hard, yet at times there is nothing to do. They give you hope, give you all these drugs, but they can’t conquer it. There is still no cure. The doctors were very, very supportive, but they are not miracle workers. And sometimes you need a miracle.
Different Kind of Medicine
People didn’t discuss cancer with him, and he didn’t raise the subject. He’s not the type that would talk about himself. People might ask, “How are you feeling today?” but that’s it. But in the waiting room for radiation, he met the same man every day. They would talk about treatment because they were having the same thing. It was so good, really helpful for Bob, which was a relief for me.
We were lucky. The medical center made it easy for us. We didn’t have to wait to get a CT scan or see doctors. Everything happened very quickly. There was no stress about getting there either because we lived so close to the hospital. We felt that they were really taking care of him. I worry for people who can’t see a doctor for three weeks or don’t have access to immediate care. That would really add to the stress.
But even with the excellent care and Bob being a doctor, there was a lot he didn’t know. No one ever really told about the risks and side effects from the treatment. He would ask, “I’m very tired after chemo and slept for 24 hours. Is this what I should expect?” They could have been a lot more forthcoming about the effects of treatment. I’m not sure why they weren’t and why he didn’t ask. Maybe he didn’t want to know. They didn’t tell him that he would have a problem eating, but then, after the fact, said that’s normal. Bob really relied on his oncologists. And believed in medicine. His medicine could make people better. You operate or put someone in a cast, and they get better. This was a different kind of medicine, a different type of problem. Even the doctors don’t understand it well.
A Medical Widow
Being married to a doctor, I was used to being a medical widow. Over the years, I did everything for the household, raised two kids, etc. I know how to do things and was used to doing everything, so I am fine with all that stuff. But the hardest part is when you come home and realize that this is it, you’re alone. Even when he worked late or got called to the emergency room and I went to sleep alone, I knew he would come back.
Now, going through the whole daily routine, that’s when it really hits you. Even though I have many wonderful friends who call and take me out to dinner and keep me busy, I’m still alone. Sometimes when friends say “Let’s go out to dinner,” I have to stop and think. Then I remember, if I don’t, I will be alone. So, I say yes to everything.
I will be ok. I’m content to be myself, to go for a walk in the woods or sit and read a book. I may be an extrovert, but I can be alone. It’s just going to take some time.