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
I think about how I've dealt with my fear of losing him. I feared my own death and that he would face this alone. I dealt with it by doing all the things a caretaker does: I wrote group e-mails to our friends scattered over the world, arranged for the visits of those who came to help, handled the insurance calls for the bills that poured in. I wrote thank-yous. I wrote poetry. I went to the theater to hear people laugh at what I did.
When we argue now, the struggle centers on our differences in how we examine the world, what movies we choose to see, what we focus on emotionally. Sometimes, he still struggles with physical pain and loss of energy. In my desire to lighten him up in those moments, I feel I am not seen. He would like the space to feel what he feels.
We are in a car together after leaving Boston, where he photographed the infusion clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "My fear is that I will be back in there," he says. "Needles in arms, pumping shit into my veins without any hope. Last time, I was willing to go through it because of the hope of coming out the other side."
"How the doctors frame it is so important," he says. "They create the psychological landscape." The four doctors he saw after his surgery responded so differently to his condition.
At St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where our general practitioner had recommended a tumor surgeon and oncologist, the oncologist was great. He said, "The chemo's going to be a drag." But he also said, "You're going to be fine." He immediately understood Jeff's energy, and that was helpful. Jeff needed to feel that his will to live, his desire for life, counted as helpful to his recovery.
The second doctor, found through a friend who had a different form of lymphoma, took the doctor-as-God position: "You have an incurable disease. I give you, at most, 10 years." He presented himself as the "I'm-gonna-give-it-to-you-straight" guy, but really, it was "I know more than you do."
Jeff chose to begin chemo with a third doctor because of the reputation of the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and the strength of a friend's recommendation. Jeff's doctor was a leukemia specialist but explained that the treatment was essentially the same for both forms of cancer, and Jeff wanted to be in the best hospital, should he have any complications.
When I met this doctor at the beginning of chemo, I was appalled by how little he communicated. When Jeff talks about the doctor now, he tells me, "I gave him God-like powers, whereas you said, ‘Wait a minute, this guy's a jerk, he won't talk.' "
"I had great scorn for my father when he was sick," Jeff continues. "I wanted to strangle his oncologist. I thought my father was weak for not standing up to him. But now I know how that can happen. My parents didn't want a doctor who could talk to them. By giving his doctor control, it allowed my father to let go a little."