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Judy Silk Headshot

The New Normal: Life Lived With Cancer

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I hardly know where to begin. I usually like to be funny in my writing. Or try. But this isn't really funny. Humor plays a part, but it's not the primary emotion or characteristic. I'd say the main elements are cope and hope.

I don't know what I was thinking when I scheduled my husband's colonoscopy for the night before our first anniversary. Instead of a nice romantic dinner overlooking the ocean, we were home, with him drinking a rather wretched cocktail of, well, let's face it, laxatives, while I snuck a tuna sandwich in another room. We toasted to a better celebration for our second anniversary.

The diagnosis was positive. Odd that in this case positive meant something negative; Dan had Stage III colon cancer. It seemed a good anniversary only in that we thought we had caught it in time. He had surgery and six months of chemotherapy. The chemo took a toll, but at the end of it we thought we'd won the war. Turns out it was just the first battle.

For the next year and a half we lived like we had a new lease on life. This is a second marriage for both of us, so we already feel like we hit the jackpot. Conscious of how lucky we are to have a extra chance at romance, we never take each other for granted. We planned vacations, enjoyed barbeques with family, made some home repairs. The usual.

Flash-forward a year to the night before my birthday; Dan had an episode of fainting and a seriously disgruntled stomach, which he hoped was just the Korean BBQ he'd had for lunch. We went in to the ER. They performed an endoscopy that revealed an ulcer in his stomach. I'd have been happy with an ulcer. But the ulcer was most likely caused by a mass, and the mass was most likely a tumor.

I turned 55 at Kaiser, with tears instead of cake. I kept hoping for less news than we got. I wanted it to be a new, different cancer. It wasn't. It was a metastasis of his original colon cancer. I hoped it had just spread to his stomach. It hadn't. It was in the stomach, the abdominal wall, some lymph nodes and his spleen. I hoped the tumors could be removed. Surgery was ruled out. Back to chemo. Finally, I hoped it would be another six month round, maybe a year, as this was Stage IV. The oncologist said what I hoped I'd never hear. There is no cure. He will be on chemo for the rest of his life.

Crying, hugging, fear, panic, sharing and comfort, his fear of dying and letting us down, my fear of living without him, going on alone. It's not the independence I was afraid of, it was the absence of my soul mate.

A good friend came over to sit and hold my hand. She made an appointment for me to see my Rabbi. The Rabbi said, "Don't think too far ahead. He's here now. Enjoy today." As hard as it was to keep my fearful thoughts from racing, I knew he was right. I had a lot to appreciate in my present tense.

Dan and I tried to get back to the day-to-day. He took six months disability to deal with the treatments, to focus on his wellness. One evening we went to a movie, a comedy. We wanted to get our laugh tracks restarted. Sitting in the semi-darkened theater waiting for the movie to begin, I tucked my right arm through his left and rested the right side of my face on his fleece. He kissed the top of my head. My feet were firmly planted on the sticky floor, but my body wasn't grounded. I kept feeling out of sorts. Besides the obvious, I just couldn't get a good breath, I couldn't relax my brain, I couldn't feel normal. Finally I said to my him, "I just want to feel normal again." Dan, my wise and capable man said, "This is the new normal." When he said that, I agreed. But inside, I rebelled. I couldn't imagine this being normal. I kept thinking I wanted things to go back to how they were. I wanted to feel that unaltered bliss, that faith in our planning a future together. But the reality was, death was looming larger than it otherwise might. Of course everyone faces death as inevitable, but not everyone is told at 53 that it is within sight. The truth was, for us, this was the new normal.

In the weeks that followed, Dan started back to chemo. We adjusted to our new schedule with him being home. Our two oldest daughters were enjoying their first year in college; my youngest was in middle school. I found myself drawn to the incredible Cancer Support Community where I could talk with other caregivers and Dan and I could join others in meditation, Tai Chi, writing, counseling and numerous other options. We told some friends, but didn't broadcast it wide.

I think we're unified in coping, hoping and living in the present. We have each other, we have wonderful family and friends, we have some trips planned, we have plans for the future. We laugh, we're quiet, we even still argue. I guess this is the new normal. And while it sucks to have cancer, we have each other, and that's never bad. In that we are always lucky.

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