It is now likely the most dreaded word in the language, the C word – Cancer. It brings instant shock and the immediate cycle of Grief begins.
Marlene had been retired for less than a year, the picture of health, enjoying her retirement – if you can call the stress of daily minding her 4-year-old and 6-year-old grandsons enjoyable – and then suddenly… We had been savouring a weeks’ vacation at a cottage at Lac Ste. Marie. Except for an unfortunate encounter Bonnie had with a skunk (see The Hallelujah Chorus, Chapter 53), the week was very relaxing. But one morning Marlene woke up with a tingling pain and discomfort down her left arm.
Yes I thought so too, a heart attack, and the anxiety/disbelief cycle immediately set in. But Marlene thought maybe she had injured herself with that new TRX routine. The pain receded in a while but two days later we were home again and she made an appointment with her doctor. ‘You didn’t have a cardiac incident,’ he said. ‘I think you have injured yourself and now have fasciitis in that area.’ He prescribed an anti-inflammatory. Marlene’s previous experience with plantar fasciitis informed her that this painful condition could carry on for months if not treated, or even if treated; so proactive Marlene made an appointment with the Physiotherapy Centre she used, and an appointment with the doctor there.
‘It’s not fasciitis,’ said the doctor. ‘Maybe it’s mastitis.’ She prescribed a regime of antibiotics. But she also referred Marlene to the Breast Health Centre (now there’s irony for you!) of The Ottawa Hospital.
Four months later we had our [first] diagnosis: Lobular breast cancer, ER+; metastatic; treatable but incurable. Doctors hate to give a prognosis these days but the oncologist vaguely speculated we had three – five years, maybe eleven! Marlene began a maintenance regime of endocrine therapy – birth control at her age.
Lobular breast cancer. A sneaky cancer in that it is effectively undetectable until it metastasizes. Despite years of biennial mammograms and fastidious self-care, there was no way of knowing she had this slow-growing cancer: her breast cancer did not present as lumps, only as cellular strings throughout the mammary glands, and therefore not detected; or detectable. Even with CT Scans and MRIs, all the trained radiologists can see are indistinct shadows.
It was amazing to me the number of well-meaning – perhaps – friends and associates who asked to know if Marlene had smoked, or had taken HRTs, or was remiss in breast self-examination. Did these sorts of questions, victim blaming, serve as some sort of comfort to the inquirer? Is this Calvinist streak still present in modern society? Or is this another form of schadenfreude? Some of these people are no longer in my circle of friends.
Then came the second diagnosis: pleomorphic cancer of the upper intestine. After three months of dramatic weight loss it was plain something else was wrong. I asked to have a CT Scan of her intestines. I told our oncologist about a gastro episode Marlene had had the previous September (six weeks prior to her final diagnosis); the radiologist had followed up with us noting an indistinct shadow on her upper intestine. ‘Lobular cancer never presents in the bowels,’ our brilliant but puzzled young oncologist offered. ‘Humour me, doc,’ I said, ‘let’s get a scan’. A week later we had our answer: this ‘slow-growing cancer’ had another personality. Marlene began a regime of Taxol. She soon regained control of her gastro system and regained some weight – ten of the lost 40 pounds. Successive rounds of chemotherapy might arrest progression and restore a certain quality of life but the damage was done. Prognosis, less.
As the weeks stretched into months, we developed a new pattern of living. Carpe diem never had so much meaning, and though we now had serious limits on what we could do together, we never felt closer to each other. Her injections of Fragmin for blood-clotting, and the handfuls of meds for nausea, and constipation, and pain, were our daily routine. The weekly trips to the hospital for blood tests, infusions, consultations, more scans, had become our new normal.
Marlene still drove her own car, went shopping, did errands, and of course visited with her grandchildren at every opportunity, but the effort became gradually more and more taxing. She was grateful for the casual affection of that beautiful white poodle. The two of them spent many days together in Marlene’s bed, even when Halle found it harder and harder to jump up herself and Marlene barely had the strength to lift her.
I was grateful for each day I had with her. All the hurts and habits, and dreams and routines of the previous forty years were forgotten. Only today, and the hope for another tomorrow.