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 talked about the problems created by the anti-nausea drugs he had taken during chemo, our first chemo doctor just shrugged his shoulders. Not until a female resident handled one of his consultations did Jeff have any empathy from that doctor's staff. The resident had experienced similar problems after giving birth. Midway through chemo, we switched doctors.
"I get glimpses of the ludicrousness of my thoughts," Jeff says. "My fear comes up: ‘I'm gonna die.' " Then he laughs. "Well, yeah! I'm gonna die. What is ridiculous about it is that I get caught up in the fear of it, rather than letting it liberate me."
"What has hit me lately is my sadness about it," he says. "Is my fear about dying actually my fear about touching the sadness of it? Saying goodbye to all of this?" He gestures out the window at Massachusetts' Berkshire Mountains in springtime bloom as we drive home. "The hardest moment is when I think about saying goodbye to you."
"Today I was photographing the shadows and light on the walls next to the drip machine," he continues. "It was beautiful. It was awful, but it was also beautiful. I see the beauty of it more now. I see it in my pictures more."
From the beginning of our 29 years together, we have told each other our dreams. Jeff recounts his latest: "A guy is coming to kill me. I shoot him a couple of times, but he keeps coming. I find a sword and am hacking him around the neck and shoulders. And of course, these days I am hurting in the neck and shoulders. The dream is a personification of my fear. The guy is me."
"Maybe that's why I find Buddhism so appealing," he says. "It takes away the pressure of having to fix the fear, or run from it, or make it go away. With meditation, you just ask yourself to notice what comes up. Just observe it."
"I think of the people who were going through chemo in the room with me," he says. "An older woman was giving the chemo nurse and the entire staff such grief about her schedule, about making her wait for the drugs, about everything," he recalls. "She was scared and so she gave everyone else a hard time. It was so hard to sit in the same room with her. Then there was a young guy, maybe 28, with testicular cancer. He was so strong-a good spirit, considerate, amiable."
I ask: "Do you think he could be that strong because his type of cancer is curable?"
May. The month for a PET scan comes again, too soon. We talk about the wisdom of putting radioactive sugar in the body of someone with cancer to see which cells light up. While we understand it is the only way the doctors have to detect where cancer might be hiding, we also wonder if we are tempting fate by doing this to his body. Jeff balks at his current doctor's regimen of scans every four months. "I sure would like to self-monitor, and push it back to June," he says. "How much do you trust your gut and how much do you allow your doctor to control?"
We are comfortable with our current doctor. When we ask him about the value of the lifestyle changes we have made—organic foods, acupuncture, meditation and exercise—he responds that he doesn't know how much good it does; there is no research to prove it. "But," he says, "the ones who do those things are the ones who are proactive about their recovery. And those are the ones who tend to live longer."
I think of Jeff as a spirited and spiritually engaged man. But he is not a religious man. Still, I understand when he says, "I'm already in a dialogue with the Angel of Death. And I'm thinking, ‘Whoa, I'm not ready.' "
How much say do we get in that dialogue? I read of the 911 calls from the World Trade Center on 9/11, when a broker said, "I'm 32; I'm not ready to die." My dad thought he was in better shape than his brother before his sudden stroke. My friend who started chemo for lung cancer the same day Jeff started his chemo was recently doing chemo again, as a palliative. It made her feel worse, and she chose to stop it.
"That's a strong choice, a healthy one, I think," Jeff responded when I told him. "The Angel of Death taps you on the shoulder in cancer treatment, especially for my cancer, follicular lymphoma. The good part is that with these newer treatments, I can wrestle with the Angel, and it is likely I will live awhile. It offers a weird opportunity to wrestle with your own death, unlike a sudden terror-filled departure. It makes a difference how you die."