My husband Robert showed me how to live, and then he taught me how to die. For more than 25 years, we walked hand-in-hand through the potholes of life. He was honorable and kind with an ornery look in his blue eyes, a heart of gold and a smile that could light up the darkest moment. He always talked about dying with his boots on and never giving up without a fight.
Hearing the diagnosis of the “big C” makes your head spin and your heart feel like it has been cut out with a dull scalpel and no anesthetic. The first time you face cancer, it’s a little easier to remain upbeat and optimistic, but by the third diagnosis, it becomes more challenging. Robert survived prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma with surgeries, chemotherapy and his sense of humor. Instead of recuperating in a recliner as his surgeon ordered, he put his catheter in a big red Macy’s shopping bag and went for a walk on the beach. The surgeon wasn’t too happy to hear about it, but he did chuckle at his creativity and determination.
After several months, Robert’s prognosis was excellent; he was in remission. We were grateful for each day as we worked together to rebuild his stamina and strength. We had four and a half years of enjoying life and each other when we were shattered again with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer of unknown primary (CUP).
The first time you face cancer, it’s a little easier to remain upbeat and optimistic, but by the third diagnosis, it becomes a little more challenging.
When cancer is found in one or more sites with an unknown origin, it is called CUP. It is difficult to believe they can’t find the source with all of the diagnostic imaging, blood tests and pathology studies that are performed on the patient. CUP strikes more than 30,000 people per year in the U.S. and is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death. Robert was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma that developed in his gland cells, possibly in his stomach and/or intestines, but we would never know for sure.
Just as before, we digested the information, shed a few tears and went into fighting mode. The journey consisted of months of walking over land mines, and we never knew what would happen with every courageous step. Each chemotherapy infusion brought new side effects and challenges. His sense of humor appeared daily with jokes about his hair loss and what side effect could possibly come next. Laughter sure beats crying.
We were always equal partners, but I took over with each new cancer diagnosis as his only caregiver, advocate, researcher and motivator. We believed that if he focused on getting well again, I could take care of everything else. At times, I felt overwhelmed and scared, but a healthy diet, time for myself each day and prayers kept me focused. There is a lot of stress and sadness during cancer treatments, but you can’t waste your limited days with crying and negative energy. There will be plenty of time for tears and sadness. You need to remain upbeat and grateful for the days that you have, be thankful that there are drugs that can prolong life for however long they can, and be appreciative to the doctors and oncology staff that administer the chemotherapy drugs.
Robert never found remission again. After two years of more than 40 chemotherapy sessions, and a new drug infusion that “just might work,” he realized it was time to surrender. Robert continued to be positive and brave until the very end. Yes, he died with his boots on, and he left me with the instruction manual on how to live until the very end.
Christine Sunderman Russell lives in Hilton Head, S.C.