January 2003 – Who can save my husband – this mountaineer, a dad, a man of integrity, courage and faith, this man known as a “great guy.” Who can save him from terminal cancer? Can his doctors, can God, can I? When all the answers are no and the agony of terminal cancer trumps coping, how can I sustain my courage to face what is coming?
By Christmas, Werner said to a friend who said, “How are you doing?” “When I wake, I don’t have any energy. I feel wiped – out. I’m just hanging on.” It set my alarm bells ringing.
On January 28, 2003, the sun rose pale and cold and the cancer wheels ground forward. As usual, we walked in silence from the parking lot and into the hospital for the appointment to hear the CAT SCAN results. Holding hands, we walked our beaten path along the oncology corridor. As usual, we stopped to look at the artwork displayed doing its job to distract. In crowded Oncology, we found an empty love seat along the wall. We sat. We waited. Having had lots of practice, we waited well. He read. I wondered.
The nurse called our name. I said, “Okay, love, here we go.”
Always upbeat, he slipped his arm around my waist. “We’ll be fine.”
We entered the back rooms where test results might mean a matter of life or death.
In our tiny windowless exam room, we sat in our usual worn waiting chairs. But nothing about this day turned out usual. Werner’s nurse stayed. She usually left after she entered Werner’s vitals and weight loss in his health chart.
Werner’s oncologist arrived, and pleasantries followed. “Hi, Carla and Werner. How are you? Nice to see you. How’s the skiing Werner?” All the while Werner lived with cancer’s assaults on his body, his extraordinary energy and continued active involvement always amazed his medical team. His oncologist said, “How are you doing?” “Great,” was Werner’s reply.
And then the silence hung heavy and lingered too long before the hammer came down shattering our world like the breaking of a crystal glass.
“The CAT Scans are back, and I am afraid the news is not good. We are sorry to tell you that your cancer has returned.”
“Bummer,” said my beautiful husband.
I dared not look at him. My fragile emotional hold retreated to a hiding place for protection. I reached for his hand and held on tight to hear cancer invaded Werner’s lymph nodes, pancreas, and liver. It spider-webbed around vital organs prohibiting surgical removal. Cancer acted like a parasite. It ate his food first sucking out the nutrients and left him the trash. And then came the worst, “There is no cure. Perhaps six months.”
Everyone’s eyes fastened on us. Tense. Silent. Waiting. How will we respond? Anger, hysterics, blame? No, we sat. We did not move. The atmosphere in the room felt oddly calm.
The oncologist broke the silence and offered the palliative program chemotherapy and without hesitation, Werner said, “I will fight. When do we start?”
As if on cue, a palliative care doctor arrived followed by his nurse and Werner’s nutritionist. After we had accepted all the palliative help offered, we stood to leave, amid hugs and good wishes. Werner walked half-way through the door, turned and said, “I am going skiing tomorrow.”
Part II: Beyond coping when facing a loved one’s terminal cancer. Who Will Help?
“My strength comes from God who made the mountains.”