While many people revel in Christmas, my wife loves the sanctity of Easter. So it was no surprise Lori wanted to attend sunrise Easter services on March 31, 2013. The service was jubilant, and we spent the day feeling that all was right with the world.
When I finally crawled into bed around 11:00 p.m., I began to drift, though I wanted to stay awake until Lori finished her shower. A few minutes later, Lori quietly drew back the covers and slid into bed. I woke long enough to tell her I loved her and give her a short kiss. Then I was out—until her sobs summoned me back to consciousness.
“What’s wrong? What’s going on? What did I do?” I asked.
There was no response for what felt like an eternity. Then, in an uncharacteristically weak voice, Lori said, “I found something in the shower.”
“What do you mean you found something in the shower?” I said anxiously.
“I found a lump. It is two centimeters. It’s cancer.”
Not only had Lori found a lump in her breast, but also, as an oncologist, she had determined its size and that it was malignant. I knew she was a great doctor, but I prayed there was room for error. Many times during our marriage, I hoped Lori was wrong but never more than at this moment.
My wife, a radiation oncologist, would soon go from being a provider of care to a receiver of it. Lori and I would gain a new perspective about why the word cancer, rolling slowly and menacingly from our physicians’ mouths, rattles us to the bone. It is a word we hope never to hear—certainly not in the context of our health or the health of a loved one.
When you hear the word cancer, it’s as if someone took the game of Life and tossed it in the air. All the pieces go flying. The pieces land on a new board. Everything has shifted. You don’t know where to start.
As one patient said, “I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to pass out. I was upset. I called my roommate and I was hysterical. I didn’t know what to do. I was like blown away. It was a complete shock. To me, ovarian cancer is a death sentence.”
Yet cancer is part of the human condition. It strikes approximately one-third of women and one half of men at some point in their lives. In 2014, an estimated 1.66 million people received a diagnosis of cancer. They joined a pool of 13.7 million Americans already living with cancer, the vast majority of whom are fifty-five or older.
Overall, newly diagnosed cancer patients will have a 68 percent chance of surviving for five years or more—a dramatic gain from forty years ago, when the survival rate was less than 50 percent. Even so, nearly 600,000 Americans will die from cancer this year, making cancer the second-leading cause of death in our country.
If you’re lucky, the journey will be a short divergence from life’s path. For some, however, it will be a dramatic fork in the road to an unknown future. For all, it is a life-changing diagnosis.
A JOURNEY OF UNKNOWN DURATION AND DESTINATION
Imagine going on a trip without knowing the destination or method of transportation, with no map to guide you and no planned arrival time. Now imagine you are leaving tomorrow, and there is no time to pack.
It is little wonder that cancer patients often feel overwhelmed, shut down, and are unable to participate in crucial decisions about their care. Our logical minds stop working just when we need to be thinking with absolute clarity about our next steps.
Karen Sepucha, a professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the leading authorities on how patients make crucial health care decisions, explained it to me this way:
By the time people face cancer, they’ve usually faced other major issues in their life and made other difficult decisions. What I have found is that, sometimes, when they get into the medical community, they forget all of that. So people who have pretty advanced ways of taking care of their families and making good decisions all of sudden get to the doctor’s office and lose all of the skills that allow them to question things, get other opinions—things that they would do in any other aspect of their life.
It is a moment when time stands still, a moment laden with anxiety and uncertainty. A new journey is beginning, and it is one for which we are ill prepared.
If you would like to read more about Lori’s story, as well as the stories of many other patients’ journeys through cancer, please read our new book: After You Hear It’s Cancer: A Guide to Navigating the Difficult Journey Ahead.