What Does Cancer Leave Behind?
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My husband Stephen was 49 when he first heard those terrifying three words: “You have cancer.” It was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer. I was 47 years old, we had four kids between us, ages 15-20 years old. We had been married for almost 8 years; life was good. And then with those three words, that life we'd created ceased to exist. Our new lives became a continuous schedule of doctor appointments, surgery, chemo treatments, radiation, and scans. The fear of “what if” became the proverbial elephant in the room. Stephen had the fear. My endless positivity, and perhaps my own sense of denial, wouldn’t permit the “what if” discussions that I suspect cancer patients struggle with, both internally and externally. After six months of grueling treatment came 7 months of cautiously blissful remission, where in some moments you could almost forget about cancer. But then came more bad news: a cancer relapse. The next 10 months were entirely consumed by an incredibly rigorous and toxic treatment protocol, including lots of chemo, radiation, and an allogeneic stem cell transplant using anonymous donor cells.
The impact on our family was enormous. I was no longer a mom or a wife or even just my former self. I was a caregiver to a seriously ill patient. The hospital became home, the doctors were our gurus, and “You’re going to be okay” was my mantra. I really became disconnected from anything that wasn’t cancer-related. It was a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining time. 103 days after his stem cell transplant, Stephen developed pneumonia. Four days later, intubated in the ICU, he lost his battle. The last 24 hours were the cruelest of cancer’s weapons: watching someone you love die before your eyes as you sit there helpless to do a damn thing. That last day, those last hours, were surreal. The feelings were, for me, a mix of disbelief, sadness, fear, panic and actual physical numbness. I listened to what was being said, but didn’t understand what I was hearing. I spoke, but had no idea what I was saying. I was surrounded by friends and family, but I was alone. I think what I was mostly aware of were the sounds of all the machines to which he was hooked up and the numbers displayed on each monitor. I didn’t know what it all meant, and yet it is what I remember focusing upon until that very last moment, when the sounds stopped and the machines were turned off.
So, what does cancer leave behind? It leaves a wife and children unable to comprehend the loss of a man so young and vibrant, who had a larger-than- life sense of humor. It leaves children having to cope with a loss that they shouldn’t have to deal with so early in life. It takes away memories and precious moments that would never be created; holidays, birthdays, graduations and life events never to be celebrated together; places we will never see together; adventures we will never share.
It leaves daughters who will not have their dad to walk them down the aisle and future children who will be born without the gift of knowing their grandfather's incredible knack for eliciting laughter. Cancer leaves behind broken dreams, unfulfilled goals, grief, sadness and a fractured sense of faith. It leaves you questioning everything that you thought was real and true. And it leaves a hole in your heart that you’re sure can never ever be repaired.
But for those of us left behind, there is also life to be lived. Grief is like a heavy fog, but it begins to lift and dissipate. The sun begins to shine through, a little at a time. Somehow it becomes possible to smile and laugh again. A path appears, and it is the road of the journey we must continue on. A new strength grows, a renewed belief in happiness and optimism if you can just open your heart to it. Our souls become healed enough to move forward and find that which we are meant to do in the world. For me, this journey became a spiritual one, with a brand new sense of purpose and self creation. A brand new career with the emphasis on doing good in the world. I hope that I am a good role model of strength and positive energy for our kids. I think, in some way, cancer leaves us with a gift of sorts, too. A gift of clarity and perspective on life, an ability to discern what in this world truly matters. I believe that what cancer leaves behind, for those of us from whom it has taken so much, is the ironic ability to better appreciate every moment, every breath we take, every hug and every smile. Cancer leaves us knowing that while we hold on to wonderful, loving memories, we must let go to move forward. Cancer surely brings us to our knees, but we can’t let it take us down.
Jodi Watermanis a CPA with over 25 years of financial management experience and a diverse industry background. She wrote a blog detailing her husband’s two year illness with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Jodi made a major career change after her husband lost his battle, and is now the Director of Operations for the New York City Chapter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She is passionate about music, yoga, meditation, and being part of the relentless fight against cancer.
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