A husbands perspective on battling breast cancer.
|“I have cancer!”
The words jolted me awake. I tried to focus on my wife, standing over me in our bedroom. My blurry eyes I reminded me that I had taken my contacts out.
I had seen her up and about when I got home from working the night shift. She reminded me that she had a mammogram scheduled to look at a lump she had found in her left breast. This was just one of several appointments my wife had been going to in the past couple of weeks. An infected tooth had prompted several trips to her dentist and her doctor for antibiotics to bring the infection in her jaw under control. I hadn’t been too concerned about the small lump we felt in her breast, attributing it to a side effect of the infection.
But now the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. I put my glasses on and looked at her. She was in tears.
“Who said it was cancer?” I asked.
“The doctor doing the mammogram!”
I took her in my arms. She was scared. I was scared. But she needed to be comforted. She needed reassurance.
“Penny, an x-ray can’t say it’s cancer. All it can do is show a tumor. You have to have a biopsy and have it tested to actually call it cancer.”
“Well, he seemed pretty confident when he came out and said ‘You have cancer’! He took me right into the ultrasound room and had them do an ultrasound on it. He said there were a couple of lymph nodes that were swollen.”
“Yeah, and you have an infection on that side of your body in your jaw. Swollen nodes are not uncommon with an infection” I replied.
“I am NOT going to waste away like my dad and John did” she sobbed.
Her father and her brother John had both passed away within the last 5 years from cancer. She had traveled home to Georgia to be with both of them. She had seen the suffering they had gone through. I could tell that much of her fear came from the visions she had of their last days.
“Look, I’m going to take a shower. Then we’ll call Doctor Cambell’s office and see what we need to do next. I’m pretty sure the next step is to get a biopsy of the tumor so they can tell if it’s really cancer.”
By the time I had finished showering and dressing, her doctor’s office had already received a call from the hospital x-ray department. They put in motion the office visits and procedures over the next couple of weeks that would ultimately culminate in a modified mastectomy of her left breast and a full mastectomy of her right breast. To say our lives were changed forever would be a gross understatement.
This is our story.
I met my beautiful bride on a blind date my sister set up for me. I had just completed the nearly yearlong schooling for Nuclear Power in the US Navy, and was home on leave before reporting to my first submarine. Penny worked at the local theater in our hometown at the concession stand with my sister. I took her out that first weekend at home. By the third weekend, I was renting a tux to take her to her senior prom. And just a few days before my leave ended, I proposed to her. We were married 4 months later. Neither her family, nor mine was really sure about our relationship. But it has lasted through 15 years of naval service, 3 kids, 2 foreclosures, and a bankruptcy. And now, after 32 years of marriage, I love her more than I ever have. She is my rock. Standing beside me through every deployment and rough time, I knew that now was my turn to be her rock.
I reassured her as we were told that the biopsy had come back positive for Invasive ductal carcinoma. We would do everything we needed to make sure she got through this. When her surgeon gave her the option of lumpectomy or mastectomy, I told her that she didn’t need breasts for me to love her. The fear of re-occurrence of the cancer had her leaning to a full mastectomy, and I let her make the decision. That decision was difficult for her I suppose. But what was even more difficult was the decision to remove the other breast.
When we went to see the oncologist for the first time, her nurse had Penny don a hospital gown, opened to the front so the doctor could make her examination. As we sat in the room waiting on the doctor to come in, Penny started flashing me. I laughed. She did this in the surgeon’s office a week earlier. But that was before we knew it was in fact cancer. I took it as a good sign. Her spirits were up, despite the uncertainty of what lay ahead. I joked about taking some pictures for posterity. She laughed.
During the exam, her oncologist asked her if she did regular breast exams on herself. Penny said no, and I expected her to follow up with our standard joke about that: Hubby does those. There is a ring of truth in that. Penny was blessed with those assets, and I always showed my affection to her with a squeeze here and there. But she just smiled at me as the doctor showed her where to look and what to look for.
Of course, this lead to the other joke she threw at me.
“I blame you for this” she said on the way home.
“Okay, I can’t wait to hear this. How is this my fault” I asked?
“If you had played with my boobs more, you might have found the lump sooner!”
I laughed hard at that one. If there is anything she cannot accuse me of, it’s a desire to play with her boobs. Let’s face it. Despite the efforts of many women today to remove the sexuality of breasts, there is not a single red-blooded heterosexual male on the planet that does not enjoy the sight of a beautiful breast.
Which brought me to what I thought would be my biggest problem with dealing with this crisis. I’ve never really considered myself a breast man. But I began to wonder how I would feel with her decision to have her breast removed. I thought back to what I told her that she didn’t need breast for me to love her. And I reassured myself of that feeling. How could I possibly not love this woman I had spent more than half my life with because she now had to have her breasts removed? I put that thought out of my mind. This was about her, not me.
She brought that back to me the night before her surgery. She had decided, and the surgeon had agreed that it would be best to have both breast removed entirely. Part of her reasoning involved any follow up reconstruction. She felt it would be easier to have both breast reconstructed at the same time. But the biggest part of that decision was her fear of the cancer coming back in the other breast. Her surgeon agreed, and so we prepared for a long surgery to remove both breast as well as some lymph nodes in her left underarm.
As I crawled into bed that night, she turned to look at me. “You’re not going to divorce me are you?”
I was floored. She had been in bed about an hour or so before me. I thought she was asleep. I could only imagine what had been going through her mind at the thought of what was in store for her the next morning.
“How can you ask me that?” I said as I took her in my arms. “I love you. You are my wife. You are my Life. I will see you through this. We will do this together.” I held her like that for a long time.
We went to the hospital the next morning. The first stop was radiology, where a radioactive tracer was injected to identify the sentinel lymph node for the cancer. As the technician explained the process to me, I began to ask questions he wasn’t expecting.
“What isotope are you injecting?”
“Technetium 99” he replied.
“What’s the level of radiation?”
“It’s about 140 kilo-electron volts of Gamma”.
“What’s the half life?”
“Wow, people don’t usually ask that. About 6 hours” he said.
I nodded. Nuclear Power school paid off.
Next was pre-op. She changed into a gown, got into a bed, and had her IV inserted. After she was settled, I came in to sit with her while she waited to go into the operating room.
My phone kept dinging with text messages. Her sister and brother were making the trip up from Georgia to be with her. Her brother was driving, and her sister was flying in with her mother. She had gotten irritated with me a week before when she learned that I had told her family about the cancer.
“I wish you hadn’t called them. I don’t like people knowing my business” she had said.
“They’re your family, Penny. They have to know. Especially your sisters. Breast Cancer has some hereditary properties.”
“But my family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer!”
“Penny, it does now.” That seemed to hit home for her, and I didn’t hear any more complaining about informing the family.
They wheeled her into the operating room, and I retired to the waiting room. I pulled out my tablet, and logged onto Facebook.
I’m in a Submarine group on Facebook that is exclusively for submariners. No wives, no girlfriends, just former Cold War Warriors of the Deep. We’re an irreverent bunch. Submarine humor is rather rude, crude, and definitely not politically correct. There are always jokes about who is having intimate relations with someone’s mother, or sister, or dog. Nothing is sacred. On submarines, it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with the fact that just a few inches of hardened steel separate you from the cold deadly depths of the sea. And it’s also a way to weed out those who can’t cope. If you get bent and spun about a joke about your mother, how will you react when a real emergency threatens you and the lives of 120 other men? Penny understood this humor. Fifteen years as a submariner’s wife had steeled her for my sometimes crude sense of humor.
Nothing is sacred, except family. Especially a family member in distress. So when I posted in the group that my wife was in surgery, everyone responded with prayers and well wishes. And of course, being submariners, the well wishes included offers to help choose reconstruction options. I told them I would convey their offers, and their prayers.
As her family members began trickling in, the hours slowly passed. Finally, five hours later, her surgeon came out to talk with me. The surgery went well, which was not very surprising. How hard can it be to take off two breasts? She removed a section of lymph nodes under her arm, and would be sending all of the tissue to pathology for analysis.
She spent two nights at the hospital, surrounded by family, and of course me. I never left her side, making sure she was comfortable and in good spirits.
“The guys in the Sub group have decided to take up a collection to buy you a new set of boobs” I told her the first day.
“Gee thanks” she said with a twinge of sarcasm.
“But there’s a problem. They can’t come to an agreement on whether to buy you Beth Chapman boobs or Pamela Anderson boobs.”
This resulted in a coughing fit of laughter, and a rather disbelieving look from her nurse.
Another time, she and the nurse joked about the drain bulbs being like two sets of balls she now had to carry around for a short period of time. I couldn’t let this pass.
“So now that you have no boobs, and two sets of balls, do you feel any smarter?”
I truly believe her nurse was about to hit me.
Penny remained in good spirits the whole time she was in the hospital. But as I drove her home, she began to cry. I was alarmed at first, and tried to think of something to say to comfort her. But in the end, I let her cry. She needed it.
At home I busied myself with helping her to unwrap and re-wrap her bandage, and drain her bulbs. We talked about the surgery, and the coming treatments she may require. I kept track of her pain medications, and how often she needed them. I wanted her to manage her pain, rather than become dependent on the pills.
One morning I was sitting at the table scrolling through the newest postings to the Submarine Facebook group. As a picture of a swimsuit model came up, she glanced at it.
“Looking at porn again?” she asked with a touch of sarcastic wit.
“No” I replied. “I’m shopping for a new set of boobs for you.”
She laughed, and I saw that she enjoyed the joke. But something happened to me at that moment. I experienced something I had not anticipated. While I was relieved that the past few days had proven to me that the surgery and removal of her breast had in no way affected my feelings, I now experienced an emotion I was not prepared for: Guilt.
I felt guilty when I saw the picture of the bikini model. I felt guilty when I saw nudity in movies on the premier channels. I felt guilty when I saw an attractive woman in town.
But it was more than just the guilt of seeing another woman. I began to feel guilty about my inability to do anything about my wife’s cancer. I was her husband. I was her provider, her protector. And yet I could not protect her from this danger.
I became angry with myself. Maybe there was some truth to her comment that this was my fault. Maybe, if I had paid more attention to her, I could have found her cancer sooner. I found it hard to suppress tears.
And there was another guilt. It’s called survivor’s guilt. I was the one who smoked while in the Navy. I chewed tobacco. I drank. I worked on a submarine in the shipyard with asbestos insulation. I worked in nuclear power. If anyone should have gotten cancer, it was me. I have a family history of cancer, and lost an older brother to it. Yet here I was, clean bill of health following every yearly physical, and she gets cancer. It was hard to accept.
Stage IIIA. That’s what her Oncologist told us when we finally had our post op appointment with her. She was healing very well, no more pain, drain tubes removed. We were now ready to face the coming follow on treatment. Or at least I was. But then, it’s easy for me to say that. I’m not the one that will have to physically go through it.
Her follow on treatment will include chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and hormone drug treatment. Three steps. It will start with some baseline scans, MRI’s, bone scans, and blood work. All tests to make sure she stays in the IIIA category.
There was good news. The pathology report showed the cancer was hormone responsive. And a HER2 test was negative. The oncologist was very pleased with these results.
We asked a lot of questions about the treatment plan. And the oncologist was very patient with all of our concerns. I made sure, through questions and answers that Penny was fully aware of what was in store with all of the treatments. Six months of chemo would more than likely leave her bald, weak, and nauseous at times. Penny has always been active. Spending hours outdoors in the blazing heat cutting the grass, working her various gardens, and taking care of the animals on our small ranch. I wanted her to understand that this treatment would make her feel tired for much of the time. She needed to know that spending the day inside on the couch resting would be normal for much of the treatment.
As we left the hospital, I could tell she had been listening. She was quiet. Thoughtful.
“Are you ready for this” I asked?
“No” she replied.
“Well, you need to be.”
“I guess this is what John felt with his cancer” she said. John had died 2 years ago from colon cancer. “He decided not to do all the radiation and chemo treatment.”
“Well, you’re going to do the treatment” I replied.
On the way home we stopped at the store to pick up some groceries. We ran into a neighbor friend from down the street. Two years ago he had suffered a severe concussion and brain injury on the job. As we stopped to talk with him, we could tell he seemed a little agitated. He began relating his latest battles with Workers Comp over his injuries. He was very candid with his condition, admitting to depression and anxiety as a result of his injuries. He made the comment that the one thing that keeps him going, that stops him from doing something to himself was his daughter. It would be unfair to her if he gave up he said.
Penny glanced at me, and said “Okay, your right. It would be unfair to you and the kids.”
Then she turned to him and said with a smile, “I’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. And I’ve thought about giving up too. I know what you’re talking about.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Here was my shy, reserved wife, who never discusses “her business” with anyone outside the family, confiding in a neighbor that she has cancer. It was the first time I had heard her admit to the fact that she had cancer.
But it was more than that. By saying she had considered giving up, she admitted that she was scared. And admitting told me she was pushing through it.
We are going to get through this. No, that’s wrong. We’re going to BEAT this.