Last month, I heard for the second time, “It’s cancer.” Metastatic breast cancer this time, to be more specific. Metastatic. That’s a terribly scary word. All too recently, we saw what that can mean. It’s not good.
In June, my mother-in-law died from metastatic cancer, from a sarcoma on her leg that spread to her lungs. In her final week on this earth, I watched her grow weaker and weaker, seemingly by the hour, until she couldn’t get out of the little hospital bed that hospice had provided. I watched in agony one night while she struggled to breathe, as her sons and daughters-in-law and other family members took turns comforting her the best we could while hospice nurses administered various medications to bring her relief. We buried her 7 months after finding out the cancer had spread. This experience is the filter through which I heard my oncologist’s words.
Metastatic cancer is treatable, but not curable. My oncologist was blunt in that regard, and medical literature backs him up. No false promises here. But chemo and other drugs can mange it, can keep the tumors from growing or spreading for awhile, often for years. “It’s like diabetes or other chronic diseases,” my oncologist says. (I’m sorry–diabetes, when managed, doesn’t typically eventually kill you. So, not quite the same thing, doc, but thanks for trying.)
The prognosis for metastatic breast cancer is better than for my mother-in-law’s sarcoma. There are more effective treatments and more options for treatments. Still, the best I’ve been offered is the possibility of keeping the disease at bay to prolong life, and hopefully with a decent quality of life.
I know, I know… people have lived for many years past the prognosis they were given, there are stories of people whose cancer went into remission when doctors said it was impossible, and we don’t know what new medication they’ll come out with. I also believe God still works miracles today. Trust me, I am grasping onto hope that I can defy the odds.
But while I hold firmly (desperately) to hope in one hand, I cannot avoid holding in the other hand the very real possibility that my time could be relatively short–certainly shorter than I’d planned. Most of the time, I keep that hand–the hand of fear, sadness, anger–tightly clenched and hidden behind my back, where neither I nor those I love can see it. Yet, it’s there. And sometimes it relaxes open and out slip thoughts of suffering or heartbreak. In those moments, either a lump forms in my throat and the tears flow or cuss words flow and my fists flail in a rage.
Those around me want to hold the hand that contains hope. When they reach out to me in support and encouragement, they grab hold of the hope hand, and if that other hand starts to slip into view, they’re eager to push it back, out of sight. Few want to acknowledge what’s in that other hand, let alone actually talk about it.
But there’s no denying the other hand exists; I can’t pretend it’s not there and ignore what it contains. That’s not healthy. I need to be willing to unclench that fist occasionally and confront the fear, disappointment, sadness, and pain it contains so I can process my circumstances fully, so I can be prepared emotionally and materially when the end arrives–whenever that is. And I need the people who support me to be willing to hold BOTH of my hands in this journey–the hopeful and the fearful. Even if it’s painful for both of us.