Waking Up With Cancer

Posted on September 18, 2010


My husband, Brian, was the healthiest person I had ever met until the day he woke up with cancer.

No colds. No flu. No ear aches or sore throats. But on Sept. 18, 2008, he woke up with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

OK, I know he didn’t actually “wake up” with up with it that morning. In fact, he had been having a really weird pain in his lower back and groin that first woke him up in the early morning hours of Aug. 11. “I think I have a hernia,” he told me. “I don’t think you do,” I replied after he indicated the spot of his pain, but I had no answer for him.

Two weeks later he went for his annual physical, and told his doctor of the pain. If it’s not better in two weeks, he was told, come back. Brian could only take it another four days when he returned, and this time headed out for a CAT scan (“A CAT scan,” I remember saying. “Isn’t that a little extreme?”). That scan led to blood work and then a biopsy.

Then two years ago today, as we stood at the Little Brown Jug horse race in Delaware, Ohio, Brian’s cell phone rang. And that was when we really woke up to the very real and relatively unbelievable fact that my 42-year-old husband had cancer.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that diagnosis came two years ago. In some ways, it feels like it’s been forever. In other ways, it feels like it is still closer in the rear-view mirror than we wish. Its proximity is usually felt strongest right before Brian gets his check-up CAT scans every three months that tell us we can breathe freely for a while longer.

Because you know what–when you experience cancer in your life, the ramifications of it never really go away. I know that sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. You know what experiencing cancer gives you, if you let it?

It shows you who your real friends are–the ones who bring food after chemotherapy treatments, or send an email just saying, “Hey!”. The ones who move a bed upstairs and then take it back down when it doesn’t fit because you were just too overwhelmed to measure. They are the ones who come at 11 p.m. to stay with your kid because you need them. The ones who shovel your walk in the snow, or pick up your kid from school, or take him to a hockey game–just because. They are the ones who bring over beers and hang out, and who  joke with you about the hair you’ve lost and make it seem pretty funny. They are the ones who pray for you–even though you didn’t think yourself a very religious person–and make you feel like maybe some higher power really can help.

Cancer also helps you realize that life is too short to sweat the small stuff. The things you argue over most of the time are pretty stupid, and it feels a whole lot better to be in a good mood than a bad one. It makes you think, “Why not?” a lot more often than, “Why should we?”–why not buy good tickets for the Jackets-Flyers game; why not go hiking instead of cleaning the bathroom; why not go see the Pat Dull and his Media Whores show at midnight instead of getting a full night’s rest; why not say, “I love you,” as often and as sincerely as you can to those you really do love.

Since Brian got sick, two other friends have woken with lymphoma. One has battled to remission, and I could not be happier for or prouder of her. One is just beginning his treatment, and I wish him all the best in the struggle that awaits. We will be here for him.

I can’t believe Brian was diagnosed two years ago today. And yet I can believe that it was his diagnosis that cleared my eyes and mind  enough to be grateful literally every day for him (my best friend in the world), for our wonderful son, for our incredible and treasured friends, for the beauty that is the life we share.

It was good to wake up.

I sure would love for you to share your thoughts about and experiences with cancer. Patients, survivors and caregivers are all now part of a club for which we never wanted to be a member. But at least we are in it together. And if you know any kids who need help understanding a parent’s diagnosis, let us know. Brian wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “The Year My Dad Went Bald,” from the perspective of a kid whose dad has cancer. It’s awesome!

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