The C- word
That simple six letter word can change someone’s life forever. It can make the strongest soldier drop to their knees in disbelief. It can make the most courageous police officers run away in fear. It can make the world’s best teachers give up all hope. It can destroy many things…but only if you let it.
“You have been diagnosed with cancer.”
Does that statement sting you like a bee? Does it burn your heart like a fresh paper cut on delicate skin? Does it make you feel frightened like a child surrounded by ghosts and goblins on Halloween night? Does it make your face turn stark white because your heart stopped beating?
Cancer is a very surreal thing that can murder someone from the inside out, body and soul, unless you hold your head high and take it all in stride.
In October 2001, Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. There were no options on the table. The doctors could not perform surgery because the tumor was positioned too close to his spine. He was also told that chemotherapy would decrease his quality of life. He was 61 years old. He was given less than a year to live. Doctors suggested that he take his wife on a cruise and that upon his return look into starting hospice. He refused. Instead he stood close by and looked over the shoulders of doctors who were making up treatments for him. He did his own research online and he made sure to give the doctors his 2 cents when it came to what steps they would take next. His perseverance and courage kept him here on Earth for seven years longer than doctors expected.
My very own father, Bruce Marlowe, former Marine and retired cop, my best friend, was diagnosed in June of last year with Stage 4 Esophageal Cancer, a very rare form of terminal cancer that is rarely found in the U.S. My father could not undergo surgery because the tumors were directly attached to his esophagus’ wall. Doctors said that surgery would be way too risky because with one small accidental twitch of a surgeons hand and the esophagus wall would be nicked and a major artery could be damaged which would lead to death. Unlike Rhio O’Connor my Dad was lucky enough to be given the option to undergo chemotherapy. The only thing that bothered him about it was the fact that he may lose his hair. (You have to understand that at 64 years old my father still has a beautiful head of hair. It’s not even grey yet.) To our amazement he didn’t lose any hair at all. Just like Rhio, everyday my Dad is searching online for new breakthroughs and research on his cancer. When he is in the hospital he makes sure the nurses tell him exactly how much of what medicine they’re giving to him and why. My father hates taking the medicine but he understands that he needs to so he will continue to feel as good as he does right now.
“Of all the human activities, none is so useless and potentially destructive as trying to predict the future. The future is merely a shadow which blocks out the joys of the present and emphasizes the miseries of the past.”
When my Dad first broke the news to me I was crushed, it felt like someone reached into my chest and squeezed my heart like a stress ball. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how I felt. I felt like my whole world just fell apart in a split second right before my eyes. Within the next few seconds, just as my veins were starting to feel like they were being pumped with hot acid my Dad quickly put me at ease making it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon because he still needed to see his little girl walk across the stage at graduation. He explained to me, like a true Marine, that you just can’t worry about it because there’s nothing we can do to change it. If I was put in the same situation I would do just as my Dad did. I would skip denial, skip depression, understand it’s there and it’s going to be there forever and try not to worry about it until the time comes.
I don’t believe I would ever be able to move forward and get better unless I was able to laugh every once in awhile. There is absolutely no way you can survive cancer without a little bit of humor. My father has made this perfectly clear to me from day one.
One of our recent favorites is the term “chemo-brain.” My Dad started to use it when he would forget about things or forget what he was about to say. He says it now almost every time a thought slips his mind. He told me one night that when he initially picked up the phone to call me he couldn’t remember my number. That was really weird because he calls me every single day. A normal person may have been concerned. But it was hard to be concerned when he was reassuring me in such a jovial voice that, “It was just the chemo-brain. I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
Another thing that we joke about is his feeding tube. Most people don’t know what to think when I tell them my Dad has a permanent feeding tube. It’s not as bad as it sounds. When my father was undergoing radiation treatment he got very weak and malnourished because he could not keep anything in his stomach. He described the pain from radiation as if having a baseball shoved down his esophagus and getting stuck there. To rid my father of this terrible pain and to keep his body well nourished they surgically placed a feeding tube inside him which runs from the inside of his stomach through to the outside of his abdomen. He uses the feeding tube every night and hooks it up to a pump with a bag of food which slowly goes into his system while he sleeps. I never feel weird around him when he’s on it because he makes so many jokes about it. One time I mentioned it was like he was a baby again, with an umbilical cord and all. I looked over at him and he just started laughing saying he never thought of that. When my nephew was here over Christmas he mentioned how cool it must be to eat when you’re sleeping. Also adding in that there would be extra time to do stuff during the day when you’re awake besides eating.
Even though my Dad had a feeding tube put in doesn’t mean he can’t eat. There was a point in time when he couldn’t eat but he rarely let that get him down. Even though he didn’t have the ability to consume food by mouth he had the feeding tube which kept him well nourished. When Rhio O’Connor was diagnosed with cancer he changed his diet to one consisting of healthy foods and vitamins. The only thing that changed in my father’s diet was the addition of Ensure Plus. The way he sees it is the doctor has given him 7-8 months to live so why should he not eat what he enjoys eating? I would follow my Dad’s example if I ever learned that I had cancer as well. I would eat what I enjoy eating and do what I enjoy doing. I wouldn’t focus on the negative or the future but I would focus on the moments of the here and now. You are only given one life. My family believes that God only gives cancer to the people strong and stubborn enough to handle the pain and to fight it. Rhio O’Connor fought for seven years of his life and my father is currently fighting for his. Cancer may try to be stubborn and put its foot in the door, but it has no idea how strong and forceful the boots of a Marine are when fighting to save their own life. There is no way to know how you would confront cancer if it knocked at your door. But if it confronted me I would fight it like my father, as a Marine. I would improvise, adapt, and overcome.