Oct 1, 2016

That Time We Got Cancer.

I often wish I could go back to before August 29th.

Before the deluge of supplements, the expensive juicer, the articles on holistic health, and the gallons of alkaline water. When "active" was my online shopping habit and "dormant" was Mushu my cat between the hours of 10am and 5pm. When I was home to help my parents with the burden of being alzheimers caretakers and meant to be looking for a job "in a big city on the East Coast." 

Before we got cancer. 

(I've read that a person doesn't get cancer, a family gets cancer. And that is exactly the truth.) 

We didn't see it coming, not a little, not at all. A few weeks before C day, I had accompanied my dad to a routine bone marrow tap because the doctors had found some weird numbers in his yearly blood tests. It was thought to be arthritis and the doctors said over and over again, "It's not an emergency, it's not cancer, we just want to know what's going on." 

So my dad scheduled the bone tap and I went with him, at my mom's request, to the Florida Cancer Whatever office and waited in the waiting room during the procedure. I marveled at the lobby while the Indian doctor (noteworthy to me because I love Indians so much thanks to a glorious India backpacking trip in 2011) plunged a thick needle into my dad's spine in a back room. The lobby was so clean. It had a flat screen tv scrolling news and advertisements and a stack of books on a shelf - more books than an entire Rwandan village has. I listened to the patients come in one by one, greeting the desk manager and passing American sincerities back and forth. I recalled the last time I was in a doctors office - during a bout of horrific stomach parasite while in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a few months ago. I was taken to an "American hospital" to get the best care possible. But like most things labeled "American" in the third world, it was American only in name. Privilege can't be replicated. 

So there I sat, marveling at the office, when a little old lady called me back to dad's room. There was blood all over the testing screens and she had me sit down while going on and on about how she had just come out of retirement because the office was so short staffed. "Great," I thought, "At least we won't have to come back here again." If I only knew. The doctor sent us on our way, reassured my dad yet again that it was no big deal, and we jumped in the car, me in the drivers seat. I focused on the road while my dad opened a conference call right away on his phone. He made no mention that he had literally 5 minutes prior to the phone call been laying on a table with a needle in his spine oozing blood. "Is Jim there? Kathy? So and So? Ok good, let's get started...." in his "business dad" voice. I made a mental note to be more tough. I would surely have milked that procedure for sympathy and attention. Dad just moved forward with his responsibilities. "Be stronger and tougher and more professional like dad," I thought. 

Two weeks later it was a normal Monday. My dad was working from home that day, aside from his quick trip to the doctor for his results, and I was off doing errands and job hunting from my usual perch at the dining table. We passed each other randomly, but I didn't really pay attention to anything because everything was supposed to be fine. That evening mom and I went to her spinning class at the local YMCA. And class was HARD. I thought she had had a rough day at work, since we usually don't get a lot of quality time before spinning to chat. It turns out my dad had pulled her aside before spinning to pass off the news that the doctor had told him his blood cells in his spine were "malignant" aka cancer. I guess there is no good time to tell your chosen life partner that you were diagnosed with cancer that day. But I can't help but think that if I was writing our lives as a story, my mother wouldn't have found out with no time to process. So we did spinning - her fresh off of horrific news and me completely unaware. After returning home, I grabbed my computer and sat on the living room floor to answer an email. My dad came and sat on the couch with a usual bad news preface. And then..."I have cancer." I reacted in a way you'd expect me to react - loudly and verbally processing. Wanting answers to every question under the sun. Processing the fact that disease just got a generation closer and we now not only have old people to take care of, but the caretaker also is a patient. The one in charge of leading the care-taking mission of others must now be cared for. A few minutes later my sister in Los Angeles called me. My dad had not told her yet, so I just sobbed into the phone like a maniac and eventually hung up on her, completely unable to play it cool but knowing it wasn't my news to tell. "Will someone tell me what is going on?" she texted me. I messaged her back, "Sorry, bad news is coming." 

In perfect timing (sarcasm), my dad's doctor was scheduled to be out of the country for a few weeks following the diagnosis and so we had quite a bit of time to stew around with this news before getting any concrete details of his diagnosis. We did a body scan and some more blood tests and we waited. And waited. And researched. And cried. My dad worked on his super-important-very stressful work project which was perhaps a welcome distraction (I can't speak for him), though seemed to be quite a lot for one person to navigate on the heels of a cancer diagnosis and caring for his parents and their estate. I often found myself watching him. In disbelief that my all-powerful dad could somehow have this disease just sitting inside of him - unaware to us for how long? Also in disbelief that he could somehow handle so many stresses at once - work, family stress, me and my mom harping on him about every cancer article we have ever found on Google, and his own internal processing. (I guess it's good to point out that this blog is my own experience of finding out my dad has cancer, and not his voice or narrative. And that I mention "we got cancer" as a way to alleviate his burden through familial community, not to belittle his unique experience). 

For me, all job hunting was thrown out the window and I decided that I needed to embrace and enjoy being closer to family. In last several years, my life has been all about me. About my adventure and advancement and experiences. They've cheered me on, and it's been great. No regrets about spending my last 8 years away. But now my life is about us. About my family, and being together to make memories, and supporting each other in a tangible, non-technological way. It's really been a time of a priority shift and deciding what is important to me as I build my life moving forward. It is so sad that my sister is in California. I feel bad that I get to be here during this time while she is so far away. For sure she would love to be here too. If only we could write the story.

During the wait, we concocted the best and worst case scenarios that could exist with his bone cancer. Best: the cancer is dormant and he does not need chemo (yet). The doctors found it really early and it just gets monitored and when it does become active we strike it down and move on. Worst case: The cancer is active and in conjunction with another active cancer (very common in bone cancer) and he is one of the 1/3 people who die within 5 years of a bone cancer diagnosis. Quite opposite outcomes on the spectrum of possibilities. 

Last week was my dad's follow up visit. We were so nervous. The day leading up to the visit, everyone's cautious calmness turned into snappy jitters. Humans are so funny. We all handle stress and fear and sadness so differently. 

My mom took a half day off work and my parents went together to the doctor. My sister and I awaited the news from opposite ends of the country. She at her desk in LA and me at the small town Florida Walmart buying every makeup and beauty product ever created to mask that I was a mess inside. Not fast enough, the text came through...the best possible scenario is ours!

It's a weird thing to be thankful for dormant cancer, but this is real life. Stuff happens. If you are going to have a cancer diagnosis, dormant cancer is the one you want. Basically, the little cancer soldiers haven't figured out how to be an army yet. It could be months, or even many years until they learn how to be a mighty cancer and because we are aware of the cells now, it should be an easy chemo fix. (Not that chemo is easy....but that early detection makes the process smoother...) We feel so much relief and thankfulness. It's like God tapped my dad on the shoulder, "Hey, dude, look at this..." We are so very aware that this could be much worse, that my dad has been dealt an "easy" hand at this cancer game. Comparison is definitely the thief of joy, yet when we compare this lot in life to others, we know we have a multitude of reasons to be thankful. 

Our bodies are so finite. Getting a cancer label is such a wake up call. I hope that all of us learn from this diagnosis. My dad often says that, "Don't worry, things are staying the same." But I don't agree. They shouldn't stay the same and they can't. We have cancer. We need to be kinder to our bodies and more purposeful with our time. People matter. Nutrition matters. Hydration matters. Communication matters. Experiences matter. In a way, I hope this diagnosis scares us back to life. Not meaning that we were not alive, but that anyone could use a shake-up now and then to re-evaluate priorities, desires, and the way we choose to spend our years. Everyone has some sort of battle: being born into poverty, mental illness, difficult family members, addiction, health problems...etc. For my dad, he has been shown his battle, his fight. For the rest of his life he will fight bone cancer. What he eats, how much he exercises, the doctors he visits - it all matters. But, thankfully, he has an army with him. He's got us. 

For myself, this is affirmation of my choice to come home. I am so thankful to not have gotten this news while living on the other side of the world - dealing with faulty internet connections and time differences. To be here in the flesh is such a gift. It is not lost on me the supernatural timing of all of this. Because of the good prognosis, I have extended my job search beyond the boundaries of Florida, but I am going to be picky about something that takes me away from my family. Cities with a direct flight to Tampa get priority. And I'm not in any rush. It's hard to believe that a few months ago I was living on perpetual safari in the beautiful heart of Africa. It feels like another life ago. 

So now we move on. Into this new journey we never expected. A sad, stupid journey, but one we are strong enough for. Because a person doesn't get cancer, a family gets cancer, and my family is rock solid. Come at us, C. We got this. We understand our mortality and we know what to do with it.

Thanks to everyone who had been a great support over the past month. My dad is very loved, and the community that has rallied around him is incredibly encouraging. If you didn't know, you weren't left out on purpose! We are keeping the news off social media for the most part because excess attention in a non-quality way (Facebook, etc) isn't necessary at this time. 

Hug your people. Eat some vegetables. Go for a walk. Listen to your doctor. Love yourself. 

Screw cancer. 

walk slow. xoxo.