Cancer is pretty much ubiquitous these days. Watch the commercials during any t.v. show if in doubt. We all know someone who has cancer, who’s died of cancer, who’s survived cancer. It hovers around us like—well—like a cancer. But it’s much different when it knocks on your back door, quiet like. It has a big suitcase with it. It’s come to stay awhile. Its boots are muddy.
From that moment on, you’re propelled by information. Test results. Doctors’ opinions. Treatment plans. Side effects. Odds of survival. Risks and benefits. What you’re willing to live with. What you aren’t. What to tell loved ones–and when.
For fourteen months now, this has been our reality at the farm as my husband Jack battles an aggressive cancer known as soft tissue sarcoma. The cancer is extremely rare, and when it does show up with its suitcase it’s nearly always at a child’s back door. There is no known explanation for why it picked my nearly 60 year old mountain man.
It started out as a tiny speck on his thigh and morphed like a horrifying science experiment. We could actually see it grow. During that time it was irradiated. It was poisoned by chemotherapy. Then it, and a wide margin around it, was cut out and thrown away. Then just to be sure, more and more and more chemo. More and more.
With each phase of a treatment plan comes new hope along with new fear. But those aren’t the most difficult times. Once a plan is in motion, no matter how vile or toxic, there is momentum. A path presents itself, and the human instinct to survive keeps the path clearly in view.
Then it’s time for more scans. More tests. The yo-yo reaches the end of its trajectory. The wrist must do its magic. Momentum ceases. We wait for the phone to ring. We wait for results. Our future freezes cold no matter how warm the day.
These are the days that are hell on earth. These are the days of multi-faceted anguish. These are the days we see death lurking at the back door in cancer’s shadow. This is samsara, the realm of human suffering.
We’ve learned that any call from our doctors at UC Med wears the caller ID screen “Private Caller.” We race to the phone to see those words, and sometimes we wait days for them. We lose patience and call. We’re told to wait. They sent the wrong scan. There was something wrong with the scan they sent. They will look at the new scan soon. The yo-yo languishes at the end of its string. All we want right then is someone to tell us what is next, to have the power and wisdom to snap that wrist and create the momentum we’ve come to equate with survival.
Eventually the right phone call comes. We press the speaker button as we did that first day, when we were sure doctors didn’t give news that bad over the phone. We were wrong then, and wrong again. It’s come back. It’s in the lung. We hear them say they have a new plan. We cling to it and the phone and one another.
We’ve been lucky so far. Good news has followed bad. He’s winning the battle, though he’ll fight it for years to come. We do what thousands of others do when cancer moves in. We clean the mud off the floor. We do the next thing. We follow doctor’s orders. We trust.
We continue to practice riding the wake of the yo-yo.