Lessons In Dying From Breast Cancer

CANCER JAM OF THE DAY: (not from the 80’s but haunting and beautiful- please listen anyway)



Today was the kind of day that rocks you to your core and makes you question everything you think you know. Here you are, coping so well with cancer, taking it all in stride, laughing at your disease, and suddenly a sucker punch lands squarely in your gut and levels you. That happened to me today.

I went for my second round of Taxol this morning. I brought all the usual gear: tablet, bags of frozen vegetables for icing, powdered glutamine, and ginger ale.  We got to the doctor’s office at about 10am and checked in. They took me back almost immediately. They were behind today, so things were a little rushed. I saw the doctor first, and we discussed my blood counts, which were much better than last time. He mentioned again how he can’t believe that I still have hair. He’s grown on me. Another patient referred to him as “her little doughboy” and I think that fits him perfectly, being a kind of short, round cherubic fellow.

The next stop was the chemotherapy room, where the nurse accessed my port and started the Benadryl that makes me feel drunk. There was a plump older lady sitting next to me wearing a pink turban with delicate strands of white hair peeking out. She finished her chemo right after we sat down, and the nurse helped her into her wheelchair. Suddenly, there was a sound of water hitting the floor. I thought she had spilled her drink; then she said, “There it goes again” and hung her head in shame. My heart hurt for her when I realized that she had wet herself. The nurse gave her a blanket to put around her waist and waited for her to leave before cleaning up the mess.

Already slightly shaken up, I was very relieved not to have a roommate for the rest of my treatment. It wasn’t to be. About 20 minutes later, a couple who appeared to be in their 60’s entered the room. The man was tall and tan with salt and pepper hair, and he had a nice physique for an older man. He was pushing his wife in a wheelchair. She was a bony, frail looking woman with dark sunglasses and a silver wig, and she had very thin lips that wore no expression.

The woman stood slowly and carefully while her husband held her hands. She looked like a baby learning to walk, timid and unsteady on her feet. She finally made her way to the chemo chair and the nurse hooked up some IV fluids. I was mesmerized by her and found myself staring at her quite frequently. She moved in slow motion, as if she were heavily medicated. Her husband chatted with her about everyday things any couple might discuss. Kids coming to visit, neighbors on vacation, her missing cell phone. He ignored the fact that she could only give him very short labored answers. Her brain used to know the words she wanted to say, but now they were lost.

Her husband went out in the hall for a while, and she tried valiantly to stay awake. In her more lucid moments she talked to me. She told me that she and her husband had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in March, and that they had liked each other 51% of the time. She joked that she was having a hard time picking out his second wife. .We also discussed her disease, of course. She told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer 17 years prior, probably very close to my age. She had been through chemo, radiation, Tamoxifen, and Femara. She was in remission for 10 years, and then it came back. She had 3 rounds of chemo in all, but the doctor had just recently ended any further treatment. Since I am struggling with how much more medical intervention I want, this did not make a good case for going ahead with radiation and drugs.

While I was lost in thought, her husband returned with a man I had met at my last chemo session, a chaplain. He obviously knew the woman well, and they greeted each other warmly. I was keeping it together until he pulled his chair right up to the woman, took her hand in his, and began to speak. “Gail, I understand that you’ve called in Hospice”. She nodded. “I want to tell you that you’ve fought the best fight I’ve ever seen, and if you’re tired, it’s ok for you to let go. Don’t worry about Ted. He’ll be fine; he has a lot of love around him. And don’t be afraid. I want you to remember these words ‘Trust in God. He’s always with you’.”

Before the chaplain got through the first sentence, I felt my throat tightening and the tears welling up behind my eyes. I couldn’t hold them back; they ran hot down my cheeks as I stared at the wall beside me, hoping that no one would see me crying. I didn’t want to ruin their moment. As I turned, I saw that everyone in the room was crying silently. I had just seen something fairly close to last rites. This made the Taxol allergic reaction I had witnessed on another occasion look like a walk in the park.

Soon I finished my treatment and got my things ready to leave. As I walked by the woman, I took her hand and just held it for a minute. I had no words, but I think she understood. It struck me that this must be what it looks like to die with grace and dignity, not feeling sorry for yourself…and with your sense of humor still intact despite it all.



6 thoughts on “Lessons In Dying From Breast Cancer

    • I’m so sorry about your friend. I try to keep the more negative outcomes of this diagnosis in my “denial box” so I can get through it. Being a scientist, the concept of God is a work in progress for me, but it seems like someone keeps putting these scenarios in my face for a reason. I know that there are major areas of my life that need an overhaul, and maybe this is a message that I should get busy living with more passion and purpose.

  1. So sorry that you had to experience that. It must have been hard and you expressed it so well here. I wanted to share two books that have helped me to keep my fears in check and know that there is something bigger at work. “The Healing Conciousness: A Doctor’s Journey to Healing” is written by a breast surgeon. I’ve also read “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander. (I saw him on Oprah’s OWN channel, and it was amazing!) Anyway, not to be a book pusher but it helped me a lot after being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer last year. (And remember, research and medical technology are always on our side!) Kathy

    • Thanks Kathy. It was pretty rough last week. I try to keep these scenarios in the back of my mind but sometimes they get pushed front and center with no warning. As for the books, I’ve heard of the second one. They both sound great. Book pushing is a good thing. We can always learn more. Have you heard of Dr. Keith Block? He is an integrative oncologist doing great things with metastatic cancer. He has a book, “Life Over Cancer” and a website of the same name. He also has his own cancer center in Illinois.

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