How Cancer Complicates Relationships (#fiction)

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IX

Cancer complicates things. By things I guess I mean relationships, though I’m sure it complicates many other things as well. Still, it does a number on relationships. People are just going along planning their lives with certain expectations, and—bam!—cancer throws everything out of whack.

It’s like how people thought Johnny Ramone should visit Joey on his deathbed, but Johnny thought he was the last person on earth Joey would want to see as he drew his last breaths. Would Joey be more of a monster for not visiting or for showing up? I don’t have to figure it out, so I’ll leave it to you decide.

I just know there are some people I would never want to come to me as I lay dying, but others would be forgiven and welcomed on sight without a second thought, because I miss them so much. I don’t think Joey was missing Johnny, though, so maybe Johnny made the right decision. I know I wasn’t going to choose sides, but I never know what I’m doing from minute to minute, so it’s something we have to get used to.

Anyway, Kat knew her husband was wanting a divorce when she got the diagnosis. Just his damned luck she got sick and people would think he was a real heel to leave her in the lurch. Kat was not one of the people who thought that. In all honesty, she wanted him to get out of the way so she could at least have enjoyable sex once or twice before she got too sick, so she wasn’t wanting him to hang around.

Family and friends are sure to have an opinion about whatever choice he made, though, and it wasn’t easy to negotiate everything. How do you explain to your grown daughters that you are happier for their father to leave so you can enjoy getting laid once or twice before you are laid to rest? It can be done, sure, but let’s face it—it’s not a fun conversation.

She managed the whole thing somehow, though. She had an amicable divorce, was happy with how the property was divided, and managed to sleep with her divorce attorney. Not a bad trick, really.

I’m not one to say whether there’s such a thing as a happy death, but some seem much worse than others. I guess death is always traumatic for the living. Even if you don’t know a soul in the world and die anonymously in the street, someone has to find your body. Someone has to report it. Someone has to pick it up. Some find it more traumatic than others, but you are sure to leave some pain in your wake, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

So that’s something we have to live with. As we die.

The Treachery of Unspecified Cancers (#fiction)

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VIII

He was fun. He was a lot of fun. That’s what everyone said. He was funny and jovial and he just loved to be around people, and people loved to be around him. I swear he could make a joke out of just about anything. And he was cute, so he collected plenty of phone numbers, if you know what I mean.

It’s just that right when everyone would be getting into things and really enjoying themselves, Mike would call. And when Mike called, he always went to him, because Mike was experiencing hellish pain from cancer and needed help and support. That’s what he told us. Mike had horrible pain because he was dying from cancer of the leg.

Now, I’m not saying Mike wasn’t sick or anything like that, but I always thought cancer of the leg sounded a bit generic. I mean, I think Bob Marley’s cancer started with a melanoma on his toe, but I never heard anyone call it cancer of the toe. That would sound weird to me.

I guess people do what they have to do, and Mike didn’t leave the house much. He just kept to himself, taking medicines and things, and just trying to get through each day, hour after hellish hour. He didn’t seem to want visitors, as no one I knew was ever invited over to their place. Because I didn’t see him much, I never gave him much thought. I felt a little sorry for him, of course, and I was glad he had someone to take care of him. But I didn’t really know him—there was no connection to him, see?

So that’s why I didn’t think of inviting Mike when we decided to go to the movies. I didn’t think Mike would be interested in going out late, hobbling around town, and getting home in the wee hours.

To be honest, that’s a lie. I simply didn’t think of Mike at all when we made our plans. But I was surprised when Mike was outside the theater when we showed up. And I was surprised when Mike got a ticket and went inside with us. I was relieved, of course!, to see that he walked with no signs of pain or a limp or anything, and he seemed to be handling the cancer treatments quite well. Really, he seemed strong and healthy. I think he could have taken me in a fight, if it came to that.

And I kind of got the feeling Mike wanted me to know that.

On an Emergent Awareness of Impending Death (#fiction #prose #essay)

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Sometimes life just smacks you in the face. You’re just minding your own business and out of nowhere comes a big punch to the gut, or, yeah, a slap to the face or whatever. This mostly happens when you’re young. By the time you reach a certain age, if you are so lucky to live that long, you’ll be punch drunk enough, trust me.

Anyway, that’s why she couldn’t believe her rabbit was dying. No, she wasn’t pregnant or anything—her pet rabbit was riddled with tumors and needed to be put down. She’d never lost anyone that close before, and the tears came in waves. She was inconsolable, as you are when you lose something precious.

So she called her mother for comfort, which is a pretty reasonable thing to do, even for someone who is technically grown up and fully adult. Relying on mothers for comfort is a habit many of us never break until fate forces our hand on the matter. She called her mother and told her the devastating news, but her mother wasn’t really as sympathetic as she had expected, so she was a little crestfallen for a minute.

Her mother listened for a minute or two to the tears and lamentations before saying, “You go on like this for your rabbit when you know I have cancer, too?”

It was true that her mother had cancer and she definitely knew about it, but she was still naïve enough to believe doctors could save lives. She had heard of people surviving cancer, so she assumed her mother would be one of those, not one of the unlucky people you hear about in other families. We’re always pretty sure the worst things won’t happen to us, aren’t we?

She would be sadder and wiser soon enough, and maybe the rabbit served as a kind of omen or preparation for what was to come. Maybe it would help her get through the days, months, and years ahead. When you look back on things, it’s hard to say what helped or didn’t as you can’t imagine how bad things might have been otherwise. Trauma and grief can be pretty all consuming, you know, and your imagination for other possible worlds disappears.

You’re just sort of stuck, boxed in, and frozen.

Anyway, that’s how it all started. Tests, promising results, surgeries, promising outcomes, more tests, different doctors, different hospitals, different promises, and different prognoses were all to follow. Sure, the best of us indulge in magical thinking or just wishful thinking, anything to not indulge in despair, even when despair is rationally the correct choice. You pretend that rabbit cancer is categorically different from human cancer. You pretend doctors are magicians. You just get on with it.

Or sometimes you don’t. You decompensate. You look for comfort in anonymous sex, “mood altering” substances, or purely defiant denial. And you’re done for. Death keeps coming, and you find out you’re strong enough to face it down. I know, some people aren’t strong enough to face it down, but anyone reading this has been strong enough so far, so you’ve been strong for a long time.

Keep it up.

Caregiver Stories: Cameron and Heather Von St. James and Mesothelioma

Cameron Von St. James is the husband of mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James. Cameron has written about his experiences in the past (including this piece in the Huffington Post) and works hard to spread the word about mesothelioma and cancer support generally. I have been wanting to share stories of patients and caregivers on this blog, so when Cameron contacted me about helping to spread the word, it seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Here is Cameron’s story:

My Life As My Wife’s Caregiver

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The Von St. James Family

I’ve only talked with my wife Heather once about what I went through as her caregiver and with this article, I hope to share more. My wife Heather was diagnosed with pleural malignant mesothelioma at the age of 36, just three short months after giving birth to our daughter Lily. Heather was exposed to asbestos when she was a little girl. Her father worked in the construction business and would come home with his jacket covered in white dust. Unbeknownst to Heather, that jacket was covered in asbestos. It was her favorite jacket to put on to go outside in the cold South Dakota winters. Her favorite jacket would later become her worst nightmare.

Three months before Heather’s mesothelioma diagnosis, we celebrated the birth of our only child, Lily. We went from being fantastically happy to scared and uncertain. I remember the morning her doctor said the word “mesothelioma” for the first time. It was like our whole world came crashing down. We went from the excitement of having a new baby to a cancer diagnosis.

Immediately after the diagnosis rage consumed me, then came the frustration and devastating fear. At times, I couldn’t speak without cursing and swearing, but I understood I had to be strong for my wife and our daughter. I never wanted my wife to see my doubts. I needed to be her source of confidence and security.

There were numerous days when I felt so defeated having so much on my plate. I had to cope with everything, from my job and the constant traveling, to caring for our daughter and looking after our pets. I tried to focus on the most important tasks and I realized I needed to accept those offers from others. We were fortunate and I don’t know what I would have done without the people we call friends. Still, despite all of the help, at times I felt weighed down with obligations.

Just after her surgery in Boston, Heather went to South Dakota for a visit with her parents. She was recouping and getting ready for the next stage of treatment, chemotherapy and radiation. Our daughter also stayed there while I was working to support our family and trying to maintain our home. Two months passed and during this time I only saw Heather and Lily once. It became very difficult not being able to be with them during this difficult time. But, I needed to support them back at home while Heather was recovering.

One Friday after work, I drove all night in the middle of a snowstorm to be able to see them. I took only a short nap in the car while waiting for the plows to clear the roads. When I finally got there on Saturday morning I was exhausted. I spent the day and a few hours on Sunday morning with them before having to leave again. Then I drove the 11 hours back to our home in Roseville, Minnesota without stopping, to be at work on Monday morning.

It was hard being apart from my wife and daughter, but I couldn’t work and care for Lily at the same time. The tough decisions we had to make are simply things we had to endure. The cancer complicated most of our options, but I am comfortable knowing we still have choices and decisions to make together.

By Cameron Von St. James