Friends told me you could never really be prepared for the birth of your first child and starting a family, but that didn't stop my wife and I from trying. We had a five-year plan, complete with checklists and all. We even went so far as to plan the best time of year to start our family based around our professional lives. I was as prepared for my daughter's birth as anyone could be. What I wasn't prepared for was my wife's cancer diagnosis a little over three months later. Malignant pleural mesothelioma is what the doctors told us; a rare and deadly form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. Average life expectancy was measured in months.
The plan I had devised on fatherhood did not include details on dealing with a wife diagnosed with cancer. Prior to my wife's diagnosis we had both been working. After, I found myself struggling, trying to care for my infant daughter, sick wife and trying to find time to work. To complicate life even more, we decided to travel out of state for medical treatment at a hospital that has a program that specializes in treating mesothelioma.
To say my life was stressful and chaotic would be an understatement. It was impossible to plan beyond the next doctor's appointment. Never sure of what the latest test results would be. I found myself facing the fear of losing my wife to cancer, spending all our money and resources in the battle, and being left raising my daughter alone. But even during this dark time in my life I found a bright spark or two of hope.
My wife's cancer diagnosis taught me a few things. First, it reaffirmed my belief in humanity. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring out the best in people. My wife and I were blessed to be surrounded by so many great people. Family stepped in to help care for our daughter while we were away for medical treatments. My employer was kind enough to give me the flexibility to work when I could and to take time off when needed, no questions asked. Friends stepped up and helped out in anyway they could. Even complete strangers would offer help and support. I was, and still am, overwhelmed by the help and support my wife and I received after her diagnosis.
I have met others who have had dissimilar experiences. They did not feel like people who offered enough help and support surrounded them. Each cancer experience is unique, just like each diagnosis. Some people find help and support surrounds them, others feel they are all alone. But one thing is for sure; it's bound to be the most chaotic, difficult time of your life. There is no candy coating it, cancer sucks!
Which leads me to one of piece of advice I pass on to other cancer patients and caregivers. I received this bit of advice from a stranger at a benefit that was thrown in our honor in my wife's hometown. He had come across a flyer advertising the benefit and decided to stop by. Years earlier, his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. After the experience, he vowed to go to every benefit he came across just to stop by and help in any way he could. He introduced himself and we struck up a conversation. The one bit of advice he gave me was, "If anyone offers you help, take it. It's one less thing for you to deal with, big or little, and it should remind you that you are loved and surrounded by people who care enough about you to help." And he was right! It helps lower the stress levels too.
The other thing about cancer is that it changes people, some better, others not. I have seen people angry and bitter for years after a diagnosis. Others live the rest of their lives in fear; fear that someday the disease will return. I had people who I thought were friends disappear when my wife was diagnosed. They no longer wanted anything to do with us. My wife and I vowed we would not to let cancer ruin our lives and I found the diagnosis caused me to reevaluate my beliefs and values. I no longer place a high a value on items that can be replaced. If you can buy another or rebuild it, it's not that important. My relationships with friends and family are now what I value. It was a consequence of this value change that lead to the creation of a new family holiday, Lungleavin Day.
Treatment for my wife's cancer included an extrapleural pneumonectomy. This involves the removal of the cancerous lung as well as parts of the chest lining, heart lining, and half the diaphragm. My wife's surgery was scheduled for February 2nd, Groundhog Day. She jokingly named her tumor Punxsutawney Phil. We kidded around before surgery saying if her tumor saw its shadow she would have six more weeks of recovery. I told my wife we would celebrate her day of surgery for years to come.
My wife's sister and I just started to run with the idea of a new holiday. It was probably just a way to deal with the stress of the upcoming surgery and an uncertain future. To celebrate Lungleavin Day we decided we would have a party and invite our family and friends. We would surround ourselves with loved ones and celebrate life. The celebration would include building a huge bonfire in the back yard, writing our fears on a plate with a marker, and then smashing the plate and our fears into the fire.
One year after my wife's surgery, on a cold February night in Minnesota, we did just that. We were pretty much alone, but that didn't stop us from celebrating. We have been celebrating that day every year since. This year we celebrated the seventh anniversary of Lungleavin Day. The day has grown and we now have friends across the globe that join in and celebrate life by smashing their fears in the fire.
While I can never be sure what the future will bring, one thing is certain; my new plan includes celebrating the first Saturday in February. Surrounding myself with family and friends, celebrating life around a bonfire and smashing our fears in the fire. My wife's cancer diagnosis has reminded me what is important in life and to never live in fear or regret.