cancer + hurricane irma, part one

Earlier this summer, Tom (my husband) was diagnosed with cancer. His general physician found something suspect in Tom’s annual blood work, referred him to a specialist just to make sure nothing was up, and several invasive tests later, Tom got the diagnosis. Tom met with a surgeon shortly after and scheduled surgery for September 1st, 2017 (about seven weeks ago).

I know I sound sort of vague about all of this, but I’m trying to minimize oversharing because this is really Tom’s story to tell.

The weeks between the initial “hey, these numbers are a little high…” comment from Tom’s general physician way back in spring up until we got to the day of surgery were both agonizing and exhausting. The doctors did an awesome job of speeding Tom through all the tests that had to be done, and while Tom usually only had to wait a few days from test to doctor’s appointment to discuss the results, those little waits seemed interminable.  And then waiting for the “official” diagnosis at the end of it all… it was a long summer. Some days were better than others- some days you’re okay, some days your brain is working overtime to imagine the worst. And this is from *my* perspective- I can only imagine what was happening in Tom’s head and heart.

It wasn’t like a *spike* of stress in one moment, it was more of this drawn out stretch of having the potential diagnosis loom over everything for weeks. And then not knowing what would be next- there are multiple outcomes, depending on the pathology samples taken during the surgery and/or blood tests results that are taken six weeks after surgery.

I always thought that a cancer diagnosis would split time into “before the diagnosis” and “after the diagnosis” and it would just feel so sudden and overwhelming, but because there are so many tests that lead up to it, it sort of weaves itself into the daily conversation of your life as you move towards it. Instead of being like a gunshot it’s more like a heavy weight that drapes over you and hollows you out a little. I wish I could explain this better.

While Tom was waiting for his surgery, Grace started school. It’s the same school she’s been in for the last two years, so it’s very familiar for her, but now that she’s in 6th grade, she’s moved up to the middle school. So we got her ready for that, and helped her deal with the transition into new schedules and responsibilities, plus a lot more homework. It was both stressful and crazy (parent meetings! school supplies! volleyball uniform! driving her all over town!)  but also a wonderful distraction for Grace because it kept her from worrying about Tom too much.

September 1st- surgery day- finally rolled around and Tom checked in the hospital on a Friday morning. The surgery went well, and Grace and I spent the day with him as he recovered. Tom came home from the hospital the next evening- Saturday- but he was really struggling with pain and nausea, and within hours his temperature had spiked to 102.7 and he was back in the hospital. The doctors told him he would would likely be in the hospital a few more days while they figured out what was going on.

When Tom was re-admitted into the hospital, I remember feeling more stressed and helpless than I have ever felt in my life. Everything was up in the air, Tom was stuck in the hospital and in significant pain and discomfort and the doctors didn’t know why, we wouldn’t know if the surgery had been successful until Tom took some follow-up tests six weeks down the road…  we were just *stuck*. And there was nothing I could do to make it better for him. I remember just fervently wishing and hoping that he could get better and come home- even though he had to wait six weeks for more information on the results of the surgery and what the next step would be, at least he could be home and start recovering so that he could start the next chapter with energy and not feeling just trampled by everything.

It just didn’t occur to me that things would get even more complicated due to the weather. That never even entered my brain.

And while Tom was in the hospital, this was happening:

Weather Channel image

The weather forecasters started talking about Hurricane Irma on Sunday, I think. At first, I sort of registered it, but also put it in the back of my mind. We live on a tiny island off the Southwest Coast of Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, just above the Caribbean. Hurricane season lasts for six months out of the year down here, and it’s just this long period of intensely shitty weather with all sorts of major storm possibilities popping up on the map from late spring to late fall- we get hurricane and tropical storm threats constantly. (The graphic below shows storm tracks from a ten year period- 2005 to 2015. You can see that it’s just sort of a constant barrage of possiblilities, every year.)

The saving grace is that almost all the storms eventually head away from us or dissipate.

All the storms from 2005-2015 on one graphic- National Geographic

I wasn’t going to waste emotional energy on yet another hurricane threat until I knew for sure we were at risk. My parents, however, were FREAKED. They usually spend summers in North Carolina- in fact, I think they’ve only spent one summer here, if that- so they aren’t used to the constant barrage of hurricane and storm threats we get all season.  I understand their fear.

But I also couldn’t get on board with it. In the past few months, especially with Tom’s diagnosis, I have been working super hard to find the really delicate balance between being aware of the reality of a situation but not blowing it out of proportion. The human mind is an amazing “creative writer”, and if left unchecked, it will take the tiniest seed of truth and wave it into a tapestry of drama. And that drama can consume your emotions and become more intense and “real” than reality itself. I hope I am making sense. It’s basically the whole “fight or flight” thing in our brains warning us of potential danger. The problem is that our brains often over-emphasize the danger, so we spin out.

Not that hurricanes and cancer aren’t dangerous things, because they can be, but freaking out about them doesn’t really change things or make them better. It just drains your energy, which ultimately makes you *less* likely to function well if the worst case scenario does happen.

Plus, when you have people around you, relying on you and watching how you react to things (to get a gauge on how they should be reacting to things) isn’t it better to be as calm as possible so they don’t get freaked out? This is something I think about a lot- do I serve Grace better throughout a scary situation if I’m hysterical over things or if I’m relatively calm? How can she believe that *she’s* going to be okay if the person who is supposed to be looking out for her is spiraling out in anxiety and despair?

So even if I can’t keep my shit together for myself, it’s my responsibility to do it for Grace. And I take that responsibility seriously. I’m not saying sugarcoat things or tell yourself they aren’t bad or dangerous or not happening, or lie to your kids. I have a pretty strict honesty policy when it comes to Grace. The worst thing you can do is lie to yourself or others about situations. But there’s a big difference between telling the truth about a situation and expounding on all the gruesome potential for catastrophe.

So, while I was overwhelmed by the possibility of the “Monster Storm Churning in the Atlantic!” and the possibilities of what the pathology results might reveal, all I could do was keep my focus on Tom’s current situation and make start making practical and rational (but flexible) plans about the week ahead.

[NOTE: this turned into a *very* long post, so I broke it up into several entries and will post them over the next few days.  I’ll continue this in my next post…]

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