The Joy and the Sorrow of Cancer

Angie Laroche and Belle Piazza

Angie Laroche and Belle Piazza

by Belle Piazza

The phone call from my oncologist didn’t surprise me, but still, it was upsetting. The tumor we radiated had shrunk, but there were new tumors – most between my lung and my chest wall. An unusual presentation my oncologist told me. Clearly the chemo cocktail of Irinotecan and Erbitux wasn’t working as this was my 3rd scan in a row with growth. Time to change to one of my last resort chemo’s – FOLFOX. I swore I’d never do Oxaliplatin again. Just goes to show – never say never.

My husband listens to my phone call in silence. I didn’t even tell him about the scan. He never asks. I sat there upset and angry, crying silently. He continued to watch T.V. and play on his I-Pad. When he finally asked if I wanted to talk about the scan, naturally I bit his head off. It’s our dysfunctional way of dealing with my illness. A combination of silence, anger and avoidance. He throws himself into his work and I’ve given up on trying to talk about it with him. Truth be told, if we ever did have any deep, meaningful conversations, I’d see how much this really hurts him and that would be more than I could handle. So I hoard information and mete it out only when absolutely necessary. It’s the only thing left that I have any control over – information. How sick is that?

When it comes down to really difficult decisions, that’s when I get him involved. He’s a master when it comes to research and sorting through the science of it all. And he has a memory like an elephant. Where I fall short, he picks up and vice versa. Where he falls short emotionally, my friends step in. Somehow it all balances in a precarious Cat in the Hat sort of way.

I check into a clinical trial at my cancer center but I don’t qualify because of mutations in my tumor. I’m surprised at how emotionally let down I feel when I hang up the phone. I put a call into another cancer center to check into a similar trial, though if they have the same criteria, I won’t qualify for that one either. I wait for the return phone call, which doesn’t come.

I realize its been three days since I’ve showered. Finding the motivation to shower, fix my hair and get dressed is like me running a marathon – it’s just not happening. I know this is a sign of depression but I’m extremely resistant to going on anti-depressants or even seeing a therapist. We live in a small town – choices are limited. To find a therapist who would really do me some good would require driving – another thing I have no motivation to do. I think if I didn’t have kids I’d start sleeping in the closet, eat nothing but Lucky Charms and live in the dark for the rest of my days. Not good, I know.

I work hard, mentally at least, to find ways to comfort and console myself. Friends reach out to me but I really don’t want to talk. What’s there to say? Not much. I don’t want to talk about my imminent death. I pick up my I-Pad to play Bejeweled, check in on Colon Talk and watch crime show reality TV. That’s my idea of multi-tasking these days. The phone rings but I ignore it. The shower can wait another day.

I try to convince myself that I have to pull myself together, get out of this dark hole and LIVE. I have lots of trips and activities planned for the spring/summer, but in late winter, my social calendar is as dull and boring as the gray, wet weather. And I have no desire to try to fill it. I even cancel some appointments I had lined up. I feel badly for the few friends I hesitantly meet with. I’m not very good company. I’m distracted and lacking focus. I especially avoid my friends who have survived cancer. It’s not that I’m not happy for them; I am. But it’s hard to be happy and celebrate survivorship when I’m thinking of planning my own funeral.

This is it I tell myself – my last months or years of my life. Don’t waste them. You only get to die once – don’t screw it up. People who don’t know they’re going to die have it easier I think to myself. No one is looking to them to make the most of their last days on earth. They don’t have that feeling of impending doom hanging over their heads. They go about their merry ways oblivious to what’s waiting for them around the corner – a safe or a piano about to fall on top of their head or some other random event that will cause their early death. Nope, no pressure at all.

Inevitably something always comes up that forces me to leave the house. Taking the kids to school, of course, but you can do that in your robe and slippers. I’m talking a real motivation – like the Costco mailer with a coupon for Lucky Charms. On this mid March day it’s a luncheon appointment I have with a stage 4 friend who is celebrating 6 years since her original diagnosis. She has been cancer free since surgery. It takes all the energy I have to clean myself up, put on something that doesn’t look like pajama’s and fix my hair. Or maybe I’ll just wear a hat. In any event, I manage to leave the house somewhat put together. If there’s one thing I won’t do it’s cancel on short notice for no good reason. As my car pulls out onto the main road “Brave” by Sara Bareilles comes on the radio. It brings tears to my eyes. I realize I have to pull it together for the sake of my friend. I make a hasty stop into the local florist for a bouquet of blue flowers which they hand select and assemble for me. I tell the florist both of our stories, more tears. The florist sends me off with a complimentary bouquet of daffodils, which I drop off for the widow at my dry cleaners – she lost her husband to colon cancer a little over a year ago.

As I drive to the restaurant I have an epiphany; an Oprah “ah-ha” moment. I suddenly realize it’s okay to be sad for me and happy for my friend at the same time. Sorrow and joy don’t have to be experienced separately and while they may not go together as comfortably as peas and carrots, they can at least coexist on the same dinner plate.

Over blue margarita’s on the patio I share everything with my friend and she listens with a sympathetic ear. I know she has survivors guilt and I know she cares for me deeply. I know if she could change my destiny she would. I tell my friend how happy I am for her – and I mean it. I am honestly thrilled that she has survived. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that you’re not going to survive and the person across the table from you will – despite having a very similar initial diagnosis. But my feelings of joy for her are honest and sincere. My joy for her is as real as the sorrow for myself. It’s a strange emotional house to be in – I’ve never quite felt those feelings simultaneously before today. My lesson learned is that joy and sorrow can be experienced and shared simultaneously; they are not exclusive of each other. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact in our daily lives.