Four Years of Cancer
Four years ago yesterday we found out Bryan has cancer. Realizing it has been that long filled me with more feelings than I can express. Grateful. Thankful. Overwhelmed. Afraid. Sentimental. I could go on.
Then today I opened my Timehop app and found that 3 years ago yesterday Bryan was having the largest surgery he's had so far, to remove a 15cm tumor and all of the lymphnodes in his right underarm. It was the first sign we had that the disease had spread and it wouldn't be the last.
I decided today to share a few things I wrote about that day four years ago and also about that surgery three years ago. These are pieces, glimpses, vignettes, that I thought I might use for a memoir, but lately I haven't felt so sure what to do with them. I haven't written anything about cancer in months. I am no closer to knowing how to piece together a memoir now then I was eight months ago when I stopped actively working on one.
These pieces are unfinished, disjointed, but I think they need to see the light of day. I need to revisit them to remember what we've walked through, how far we've come, and how real this journey still is in our lives. I need to share them. I need to know that others see our story, and we aren't alone in it.
Morning April 11, 2012
The phone rings. I ignore it and go back to nursing my daughter. My three year old son snuggles up next to me watching a show on the iPad. Bryan glances at the phone and asks if I know the number, I shake my head, and he answers anyway.
Within minutes I’m sitting straighter in my seat on the couch, racking my brain trying to figure out who my husband is talking to. His side of the conversation only adds to my confusion instead of lessening it. His voice doesn’t sound quite right. Something is wrong. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.
He says goodbye and sets down the phone.
“Who was it?” I ask right away, eager to solve the mystery in my head.
“The dermatologists office. They got the pathology report back from that mass that was under my thumb nail.” His voice is controlled and calm. “It’s melanoma.”
The words crash over me like a wave. I feel adrift. I can’t seem to focus or completely grasp what that means.
“I thought they said it wasn’t cancerous. I thought they said it was some kind of common benign mass that pregnant women often get.” I don’t speak the words, but they bounce in my head.
“What does that mean?” Are the words that actually escape my lips. I know it is bad. I know it is cancer, but I can’t wrap my mind around it. Bryan’s young, only 28. He’s healthy. It doesn’t mean what I think it means, right? It couldn’t mean that.
“They want me to see a hand surgeon and an oncologist. They agreed to set up both of those appointments for me so we won’t have to. They will call back in a little while to let us know when they are scheduled,” Bryan replies. I can tell that he is trying to keep the conversation matter-of-fact to protect my feelings.
He sits down next to my son and wraps his arm around him. They snuggle for a minute.
My head feels foggy and everything seems like a blur. Is this shock? Is this what shock feels like? I start to shake involuntarily.
“I have to go to work.” Bryan’s voice breaks through the fog.
“Yeah. Yeah. Ok.” It seems strange for him to leave so soon, strange that there would even be work to do after news like that. “Yeah, your mom should be here any time to pick up Thad for their play date.” The world seems to pick up spinning again and yet I only feel like I am half on it.
Bryan moves to sit next to me. He brings his arm around my shoulders, pulling me in close to his side. There are tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. “It’ll be ok,” he says as our daughter stops nursing for a moment and looks up at him with her biggest smile.
He kisses me and before I know it he’s gone.
Evening April 11, 2012
“I wasn’t able to concentrate and decided it would be better to come home early,” Bryan explains as he walks through the door. There is a sadness in his voice that I had never heard there before.
We walk up to the park by our apartment. Bryan chases Thad through the grass with a new relish, holding him extra tight and extra long when he catches him. When he is not holding the kids, he is holding me.
We put the kids to bed early and sit alone at the dinner table. Our hands clasped in their own sort of embrace as we attempt to eat.
Tears shine in both of our eyes as we talk. In quiet voices we begin to process the new ground we are now standing on.
“I don’t want Thad and Sage to grow up without a dad,” Bryan chokes the words out as the tears that had been glistening in his eyes all day finally spill over his cheeks.
I have never seen my husband touched by fear and grief like this. My own tears flow freely as I move over onto his lap and wrap my arms around him.
Our lips find each other in a tender kiss and we abandon our food as we move into the bedroom.
April 11, 2013
The doctor comes into the waiting room. It’s not Dr. B., so I assume he’s there to talk to someone else. He walks straight towards my mom and me.
“Are you Mrs. Stedman?”
He introduces himself as one of the doctors who assisted Dr. B. in the surgery and pulls up a chair across from me. There’s only one other person in the waiting room right now, but I still feel a little awkward that he didn’t lead us into one of the private rooms off to the side.
“The surgery went great. Your husband is doing very well.”
I sigh and say a quiet prayer of thanks.
“The tumor was larger than we had suspected. It measured 15cm. We had to take out all the lymph nodes in his right underarm and some of the one’s up towards his neck on that side as well. I have a picture of the tumor if you want to see.”
My mom and I look at each other. “That’s ok,” we politely reply.
We continue to talk for a few more minutes and he discusses what the size of this tumor means. We ask more questions. We get more answers.
“Did it not all show up on the PET scan?” my mom asked.
“From the PET scan we thought it would be about 7cm,” he replied. “Are you sure you don’t want to see it?”
I feel terrified to see the picture, but also somehow drawn to it. “Ok.”
He pulls out his phone and shows us. Stretched out next to a ruler is a mass of my husbands flesh. I can see the cleaned off skin on the front edge and the whole tumor which had stretched half a foot back into my husbands chest. No wonder he had been in pain.
My sigh of relief is quickly stollen from my lungs. My chest is tight. How could they not have known that it was that big? How could something that big have grown so quickly? He had a PET scan just a few months ago and there was nothing there, or at least nothing that was big enough to be picked up. Wouldn’t the scan that he had last week have shown the size of the tumor? How could they not have known? How could it have hidden from them? What else could be hiding from them now? All these questions wrap themselves around my chest and make my breathing tight and shallow.
“The surgery went well. He’s doing great.” The doctor repeats. And I repeat it again in my head, like a mantra, over and over again. “The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well…”
I pick up the phone and call Bryan’s mom. “The surgery went well. The doctor just came in and told us Bryan’s doing great.”
“Oh thank God.” I can hear the anxiety still linger as she breaths this authentic prayer of praise.
“Thank you for being with Thaddeus. I know you would rather be here with Bryan.” I continue on to tell her more about the surgery and we share our relief over the phone.
“So, this is it, right? There is a very good chance that we won’t have to deal with melanoma again.” She almost sounds like she’s holding her breath as she asks the question. Looking for reassurance, wanting it all to be over so she can go back to life as it was. Hoping she can breath again.
I’m not sure how to answer her. I understand her desire. I feel her desire. But, I’m also stunned and silenced by her words. Has she not done any research on melanoma? Does she not know what this diagnosis means? I am silent for too long. I take a deep breath. I try to control my voice as I slowly swallow my own fears and answer, “Well…that’s the thing with melanoma…it’s always likely to return or spread…no…there isn’t a very good chance that this is it.”
The line was silent between us for a long while then.
I feel like I just handed her the death sentence for her son, and swallowed the death of my own life and love in the process. I have to break this silence. I have to change the tone.
“The surgery went really great, though. He’s doing really well. You guys will come down later tonight, right?”
We finish up the conversation on a lighter note and say our goodbyes.
“Hey, thanks for coming down.” I hug my sister-in-law and feel genuinely, overwhelmingly glad that she and her husband are here.
“How’s he doing?” They ask.
“He’s doing well. He’s out of surgery and the doctor came and talked to my mom and I, but we haven’t seen Bryan yet. He’s still in recovery. They said they will call when they are ready for me to go back.” I lead them around the corner and into the waiting room as we talk. My mom is sitting there holding Sage, keeping her distracted with a toy.
We all sit down together. We visit and talk. The mood is casual and relaxed. We all feel relieved after the long day of waiting.
After about an hour and still no word on whether we could go back to see Bryan, Tamara and Raul decide they should go. They are going to take Sage home with them and get her fed and ready for bed. It’s getting late now and she clearly seems tired. I feel so grateful for their help.
As they prepare to leave the conversation turns back to Bryan and the surgery.
“This is it, right? It’s over.” Tamara asks.
I remember my awkward and emotional conversation with her mom, and again feel stunned and confused.
“It’s never really over with melanoma.”
Grace and peace, Bethany Stedman