Since the diagnosis of my father with metastatic prostate cancer last May, I have been following the writings of New York Times journalist Dana Jennings. Mr. Jennings was also diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer last year. Thankfully both he and my dad are doing great… they’re moving along, whole-heartedly, full speed ahead and rolling with the punches. They are both strong men. And, my father, well, he’s still my favorite super hero.
I love to read Dana Jennings blog entries in the Well section of the Times (and I often share them with my father) as they are educational, human and raw with emotion.
As some of you may know, everyone gets cancer when a family member or loved one does. And, it can rock even the most solid of ties. With that said, I think Mr. Jennings latest post is worth a heartfelt read….
When The Family Gets Cancer
by Dana Jennings
As I was treated for prostate cancer in the past year, I felt like a house that had been ripped to its studs. And it wasn’t clear for a long time whether I would ever get rebuilt. But one of the most important things I learned as I was stripped to my essence was that it wasn’t just me who had gotten sick, but my entire family.
Cancer moves in, like a rude and unwanted guest. And, as the patient, you have to understand — as hard as that might be — that it’s not just you alone who has to cope with the disease.
My wife, Deb, responded by becoming a thorough cross-examiner of doctors and an instant prostate cancer expert. But my sons’ carefree college lives were abruptly tempered by the fact that I had cancer.
I knew that I could depend on Deb, who is the pillar of our family and who had already seen me and one of our sons through serious illnesses. I worried about Drew and Owen, though, who were 21 and 18 when I got my diagnosis in the spring of 2008.
As exposed as I felt, I didn’t want my sons to feel as if they were somehow being demolished, too. I realized that I had to teach them how a grown man faces cancer, just as surely as I had taught them how to relish Johnny Cash and to smack a baseball.
As I wrestled with cancer and its treatment I wanted to be more to my sons than just Dad the patient, their father unexpectedly undone by disease. I wanted to try to be a role model, wanted them to know that it was necessary to talk about it, laugh about it and, yes, sometimes cry about it.
When I learned I had cancer, I told them right away. I had no thought of hiding it from them. Keeping that news from my sons would have felt like trying to hide it from myself.
After I told them, we talked about how there are no certainties in this life, talked about how you can still exercise, eat right and love your sons more than anything in this world, and still get cancer. Yes, no certainties at all.
For Drew it was enough to know and understand that I had cancer and needed treatment. We didn’t overtalk the situation, didn’t dwell on the big questions that cancer poses, because those questions were clear enough.
The relationship between me and Owen is more complicated. We both know what it means to be betrayed by our bodies. In 2005, both of Owen’s lungs were surgically repaired, and then, in the spring of 2007, he went into liver failure, caused by Type II autoimmune liver disease.
Owen is still a patient but has recovered well enough to be entering his junior year at Dartmouth College. But when we need to, Owen and I can speak a deeper and darker language that only those who have been mortally ill can share.
And that bitter taste of mortality makes you think about things that you’ve often taken for granted, like engagements and weddings and grandchildren.
As I recovered from radical surgery, and then from hormone therapy and radiation, I learned again how healing simple human presence can be. It was powerful medicine just to be with my strong and vital sons. I gathered strength from their strength — and in the back of mind I hoped that I wasn’t passing on to them a legacy of prostate cancer.
It was even healing to hear the comings and goings of the boys and their friends. It was reassuring and life-affirming that their lives surged forward, even as I was forced to the sidelines.
Drew lived at home last winter, and I was grateful to have him there, to watch a Giants game together, or Scorsese’s “Last Waltz” on DVD. Plus it didn’t hurt to have him around to blow and shovel snow, which I couldn’t do.
With me being sick, some of our roles got reversed for the first time (I’ve always been the one, though, who plays his music too loud). The boys drove me to appointments at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, took walks with me, and Drew bought my comic books each week last summer.
Life is closer to normal these days, and I’m well on my way toward being rebuilt. The cancer feels less like an unwanted guest and more like an occasional ghost. And all four of us will be relieved on that day when it just fades away and, we hope, is gone from our lives for good.
Now, pick up your chin and be grateful for your health–cancer or not!
Have a wonderful day!