Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Cancer is the bad kind of diva
I forgot my dad had cancer.
I mean, I didn't erase it from my memory, expunging all thoughts of his diagnosis and treatment. (Expunge is a fun word to say. Go ahead, try it out.) No, I just... sort of forgot.
3 years ago, the Monday after Father's Day he called to tell us about the last in a series of tests to try to figure out why he was having ulcer-like symptoms that were getting worse, not better with multiple different treatments, and oh yeah, they couldn't find an ulcer. What they found instead was Stage IV pancreatic cancer all up in his liver. That was an interesting day, in the way of the Chinese curse/blessing thing that says "may you live in interesting times" which I have no source reference for, other than my husband says it sometimes.
After that initial diagnosis, we found out that it was the GOOD kind of pancreatic cancer, if you can imagine such a thing. Well, there's a "most likely dead within a year" kind and the "maybe dead within five years" kind. My dad has the same kind as Patrick Swayze, who, as a bizarre side note, attended the same high school as my mother, though not at the same time. Small world, eh?
So, the good kind of cancer, 18 months of chemo with some really great doctors. MD Anderson gets a lot of thanks from us. Dad being made of awesome and stubborn and no small amount of knowledgeable did research to find the best doctors and he went in ready to fight and win. He's always had such an amazing outlook on all this. He's been hopeful and determined, even when sick and tired of being sick and tired. I really admire his guts. And the rest of him too.
I won't go into the details of how much chemo sucks, because I honestly don't know. I know that it was hard to see my dad sick. At one point, I hardly recognized his face. He'd lost so much weight he didn't even look like himself. The hair loss thing wasn't really an issue since he'd long since joined the shiny-pate club. As a kid I remember telling people that I'd gotten his red hair and that's why he didn't have any. I know that it was hard to see my mom tired. I know that it was amazing to see the way they talked and loved each other and got through some truly awful stuff. And they did get through it. There was a lot of prayer, a lot of laughter, a lot of morbid humor about what sort of container to put Dad's ashes in eventually. I think we decided on some sort of champagne bottle. I was really rooting for an Erlenmeyer Flask, so someday we could put Mom in a Florence Flask and have a matched set. Humor, it's how we survive tough times in my family.
Then, after that, it was, "Hooray Stable Disease!" and on with life. Stable Disease is a strange sort of victory. It means that nothing is growing, but it's not going away either. Well, what it did go away from was my conscious thought. My dad seemed like himself again- happy, healthy and doing all the stuff he'd always done. After those first few scans that confirmed that everything was still the way we'd left it, we adapted to the "new normal" and moved on. We still used the "good china" and the "nice" everything every chance we got. We talk more and maybe say things more openly than before, but other than that--things when back to normal. So I forgot. I mean, when he stopped chemo, he told us all very plainly that this wasn't the end of the story. He's a scientist, through and through. Rational, analytical, practical. He made sure we knew that this was just an intermission, but we all hoped it would be a long one. We wanted years to go by before we dealt with this again.
But cancer is kind of a bitchy diva. It always wants to be the center of attention. I think that's what I hate most about it. I have to remind myself that my dad is more than a bunch of stupid tumors. I want to make a bad pun/metaphor/analogy thing about cancer rapidly growing and killing all the normal thoughts and replacing them with cancerous ones, but I just can't make it work. That's sort of the sad truth though. All thoughts seem to go through some sort of cancer filter and I just want to punch my brain in the face sometimes because life does not revolve around you, Cancer!! Which makes me laugh because I can't even remember the number of times my father said that to me growing up. "The world does not revolve around you." Usually when I was in trouble for doing something without thinking about the consequences beyond the fact that I wanted to do it. It took me a lot of years to understand what he meant by that.
Anyway, the world does not revolve around cancer. My dad is more than just some tumors that are being treated, again. After 18 months of travel and hobbies and margaritas in the pool, he's back in treatment. It's not the end of the world. His doctor is very hopeful, and so is he. He's a pragmatic fighter, aware of all the associated risks and yet still hopeful. It's more than amazing to see. And my mom... I mean, I've always known that she was the kind of strong that "Steel Magnolias" is all about, but seeing her be the very definition of the phrase "help-meet" is humbling and inspiring and wonderful. They celebrated 42 years of marriage last month. They've been together two thirds their lives. Crazy, innit?
So, chemo again. It's... it's just life now. When I think of my dad, I try not to think of symptoms and side-effects of drugs that can't be exposed to sunlight or touched with bare hands. I think it's awesome that Dad gets to take his chemo pills with a dollop of whipped cream to help them go down smooth. I'm totally using that excuse for my uber-foul tasting vitamin D supplement from now on. See, that's the kind of thing that is so very my dad--finding small bright sides, even in CANCER.
To quote me, which is probably tacky, but I don't care: "...get your parts checked regularly. All of them. If you've got habits that increase your risk, cut it out. Use your fancy dishes and make special occasions a regular occurrence. Live your life abundantly. That is all."