Cancer Holds All the Cards but One: Hope


A pancreatic cancer survivor explains the anguish he felt over seeing a young mother and her child in the waiting room for his oncologist, and what words of advice he would offer her.

My pancreatic cancer held all the cards and I had none. With so few surviving it, I figured I wouldn’t be there for any of my three daughters’ big days. This broke my heart as a father. After being there to help each of them learn to walk, it seemed so unfair for me not to be there to walk them down the aisle.

But cancer doesn’t and hasn’t ever played fair. It lashes out at both the poor-off and well-off. It doesn’t discriminate by age. Both old and young must deal with its senseless carnage. Some who seem they won’t make it do while others who seem ready for the fight don’t. It’s all quite bewildering.

Last week, I had yet another six-month follow-up with the gastroenterologist who found my pancreatic tumor when no one else could. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen him. Dozens come to mind.

As he is one of the smartest people I know, I always ask him, “What are you reading?” We both found “When Breath Becomes Air” by Dr. Paul Kalanithi astounding but heartbreaking. It’s a story about a brilliant Stanford neurosurgeon who faced lung cancer despite never having smoked. Be forewarned — the story is gut-wrenching, but it offers a vivid glimpse into getting told you have cancer.

Being in high demand, I sometimes wonder why he continues to see me all these years later. My hunch is that with him being a pancreas and liver disease specialist whose patients often don’t make it; he goes on seeing me to keep a win on the board.

Sitting there in his waiting room as I had done countless times over the years, I am used to seeing people with laugh lines cut deep in their faces who amble along with a cane. So, it startled me when a young woman not even five feet tall appeared in the doorway. She had her young daughter, I suppose eight or nine years old and decked out in sunglasses with a fuzzy purple ear headband, in tow. I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered some of the outlandish outfits my daughters wore when they were younger.

Worried whether she was in the right place or not, she dropped her overstuffed backpack off her shoulder and pawed through it looking for her appointment paperwork. On finding it, her face relaxed. Stepping forward to the receptionist, she asked, “Is this the pancreas and liver disease clinic?” The receptionist said, “Yes.”

On hearing her say she was there to see the same doctor I see, my heart sank. Knowing he only handles the toughest of tough cases and other doctors send him their patients who they can’t figure out what is wrong with them, I knew she, or perhaps her young daughter, was in more trouble than I wanted to know.

Sitting there, my mind wandered and wondered what would bring this young mom and her daughter to see him? I hoped for their sake it wasn’t serious, but I knew different.

With many pancreatic cancer sufferers not seeing two years and most not seeing five, I’ve come to notice things around me like this. I always want to do or say something but there is little I can do or say.

I wanted to talk to the young mom and let her know everything would work out, but no one knows this. I sometimes suspect not even God knows for sure. Cancer is a cruel taskmaster who cares little about our dreams and aspirations. The best we have are our families, and many don’t have that.

I suppose I kind of understand when someone who has had a well-lived life like me gets hit with the horrific news of cancer, but I always come up short trying to understand when someone who is just starting out — or worse, a child — gets hit with it.

My aversion to this is so strong that when one of those child charity things comes on TV, I mute the TV and look away, or change the channel altogether. Even as a mere watcher, the suffering is simply too much for me. I can only imagine how hard this is for these kids’ parents.

Even so, I have been amazed by the profound things I have heard these stricken kids say. While we adults lash out about how unfair it is, they seem to simply accept they are sick with a sense of peace. This is something I think we all can learn from them including me.

Nonetheless, the image of this young mom and her sunglass-wearing, furry-eared daughter replays over and over in my head. It’s on an endless loop and won’t go away. When it appears, I want to wander over and say, “It’ll be OK.” But I can’t. Because no one can say that.

Rather, I would tell her, “Cancer holds all the cards but one. It can take away everything including our lives, but it can’t take away our hope. Keep hoping.”

Looking back on the last nine years, I made it to two of my three daughters’ big days. I’m hoping to be there for the third.

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