Negotiating the Landscape of Cancer
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By Marnie Andrews

Negotiating the Landscape of Cancer

Revisiting scenes from his treatment, a photographer and his wife find themselves facing—and demystifying—their fear

By Marnie Andrews


When Jeff suggested this story on negotiating the fear of cancer, he wondered how it would affect him—how it would affect us. On his longest road trip since his chemo ended, he photographed first in North Carolina at Duke University, in a luxurious treatment room. Afterward he called, upset and shaky. Even now, a year after his last chemo, it had come back, full-blown. "I was so frightened," he said. "I don't want to ever go through it again."

I asked him where he was now, as if to say: "You aren't going through it now. You are out in the world again, doing what you love." But he was having none of it. He wanted to validate what he was feeling, to experience the fear.

I tried humor. I was at home on my day off, and I didn't want to go back to my fear. But I felt the edge of his anger come, as if I was stifling his need to have this struggle.

"Have you tried the visualization exercises?" I asked. When he first read those exercises in the book Healing Essence, by Mitchell L. Gaynor, Jeff had discounted their value, but in the course of treatment he found them to be a life raft when he could do no more than turn over in bed and cry.

"I brought the book with me," he said. "Not a bad idea." I could hear his voice relax a little, a balm of action.

Soon we were off the phone. I wished I could be there to hold him. I was also glad to be in my own space, away from the fear I heard in his voice.

I'm working again at the theater where I was employed when we found out he had cancer—non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Back then I was playing a farce, bulking up and adding padding to play a fat woman. Making people laugh in those first months of chemo was the finest restorative I have ever found.

In the process of negotiating chemo, everyday events could be daunting. Watching Jeff move from his bed for a doctor visit, or a trip to the drugstore, or down into the subway, I wondered when or if his strength would return. No action was commonplace.

Recovering could also make small moments remarkable, such as when we increased the number of blocks we walked together or went down the street to a restaurant after we hadn't eaten out in weeks. Those times became fresher, carried more significance, especially when we walked past dogs playing in Hamilton Park the first time after our dog, Bert, died.

We've just passed a year since Bert's death. We moved from our Jersey City apartment, which was sold just after Jeff's last chemo. We live full-time now in upstate New York. I am doing another play at the theater, this one a tragedy. Jeff has returned home after a month away photographing. I am happy he is working. But I have a harder time without him. I don't want to miss a day of seeing him when he is at home.

 

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