With Valentine's Day approaching, many of us think of love and relationships. While so much is written about these topics, my awareness of love's meaning -- at least for me -- has been heightened by something we all dread.
Last year, my wife of nearly 30 years was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of uterine cancer. She's seven years my junior, has always been in excellent health, and never had a physical complaint in all the years I've known her. The diagnosis hit us like a bolt of lightning.
Before her surgery, still reeling from the impact of the diagnosis, I was in a supermarket, picking up a can of plum tomatoes that Linda needed to make pasta sauce for that night's dinner. (Yes, she continued to cook and do everything else throughout the many months of her treatments.) Linda always reminded me to check the expiration date on products, and I did just that. As I read the September 2014 date on the can, I was seized by a terrible fear: What would Linda's expiration date be? Statistics for her rare kind of cancer give a 30 percent chance for five-year survival. Would my wife be fortunate enough to have caught this beast before it spread? Tears welled in my eyes as I stood in the aisle with can in hand.
Maybe I was getting a bit morbid, but who wouldn't under such circumstances? Your previously healthy and optimistic wife, someone living life to the fullest, is diagnosed with a disease so rare there's no specific treatment protocol for it. It's treated as if it's ovarian cancer, but that's a shotgun approach. It's seen so infrequently, doctors have to do something and hope for the best.
So maybe there was ample reason to feel morbid.
But Linda had a different view, and she made it very clear: "I'm not going to let cancer run my life or define who I am. I'm going to live every day, and keep doing what I always do."
We began dealing with the treatments together. First, there was the surgery, which involved the removal of so many internal organs, it's called a "debulking." Linda went through it with flying colors and, to the doctors' amazement, was out of bed and walking the hospital corridors the very next day. Two days after that, she was home and functioning, despite discomfort.
I cut back on my office schedule for the chemotherapy. Over a four-month period, Linda received toxic infusions every three weeks. She lost her hair and experienced various other side effects, but kept going. We persevered together.
Next came radiation. Although the sessions themselves were uncomfortable, there were only three, and she fared quite well.
We received encouraging news. It would appear the cancer was caught in its earliest stages, and Linda's prognosis is guardedly excellent. We're one year post-diagnosis, and her scans and tests are all normal.
To the outside world, it would appear our lives are back to normal, and we've resumed our usual routines; but they're not, and we have changed. Facing the challenges and fears of this past year has brought us closer. We see each day together as a gift. Our appreciation of the simple things of life is heightened, whether it's a moment shared watching our dogs play, or the enjoyment taken in a meal before the fireplace.
True, Linda was the patient and faced her situation with unwavering optimism and courage; but her cancer struck both of us. And it impacted our lives and relationship very deeply. It made us stop amid our nearly 30 years of married life, and recommit to each other in a way that would never have occurred, if not for illness.
As this Valentine's Day approaches, I think about these things more deeply than ever before.
In a way, looking back on it, cancer was a gift.
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