Cancer: The Change I Cherish

CURE, Spring 2011, Volume 10, Issue 1

An essay from a lung cancer survivor on how he copes with living with a hard-to-treat cancer.

I remember well the morning Susan Daugharty-Fowler, my long-time doctor, walked into my family-filled room. She brought with her results from half a dozen tests and another doctor. After the “good mornings,” Susan introduced the other doctor—my oncologist. Haluk Tezcan, MD, broke the ice with: “I have good news and bad, but the bad is very bad. How should we start?”

It was stage 4 lung cancer.

The silence in my room was broken only by the crying. I reached for my wife’s hand, the hand I had reached to for 32 years, and collected myself to ask the question, “How long do I have to live?” After what seemed like hours, Dr. Tezcan spoke. “If you respond to the chemotherapy, maybe a year and a half; if not, six months.”

One month earlier life had been so different. I was working 10-hour days operating my own heating and air-conditioning business. My son Jeff and I were hunting ducks and geese. My wife, Sandi, and I were building my retirement, so we could fulfill our high-school dream of going to Tahiti.

Now, we were filling out my social security disability retirement papers. My working days were gone and so was the business. My new job? Win the cancer battle.

Walking into the cancer center for my first chemo treatment was really scary. I knew that from that day on I would never be the same. What I didn’t know was how precious some of those changes would be.

After six months of treatment the chemo was taking its toll, but there was one good sign of progress—I was still alive. Every day had become a struggle. Some days Sandi and I would just cry all day. We needed those days—days when we could just release all the tension and fear—but I refused to stay there. My wife and I have always been close, but this drew us together in a whole new way. Change number one.

When I reached the one-year mark, my CT scans, PET scans and blood markers showed signs of improvement. It was enough encouragement to continue my treatments. The weekly visits were getting harder and harder. Now, there was no time to recover between treatments, and I felt sick all the time.

My daughter was planning her wedding. Not sure if I would be around to walk her down the aisle, she panicked and starting changing plans to have the wedding six months earlier. I sat her down and said, “Kym, honey, leave that carrot out there for me. We made six months; we will make a year and a half.”

I thought the chemo was tough until I walked my princess down the aisle to give her away. It was a year and a half after my diagnosis; I had lived longer than anyone expected and danced with my daughter at her wedding. It was the best day I’d had since learning I had cancer. It was wonderful!

It wasn’t long before my next goal came to mind. My son was away at college and torn between finishing his education and wanting to be home. I remembered the days before cancer when the two of us would get up before dawn to make our way to one of our favorite duck hunting spots. What I wouldn’t give to have time like that with him again. My wife and I met with his professors to explain the situation, and they granted him the semester off.

There was a lot of hunting and a lot of cancer. The time renewed us both, and he returned to school with fresh determination. Seeing my son on that stage receiving his college diploma was such a blessing. Another goal accomplished.

It wasn’t long until the holidays were upon us again. Against all odds, I would have another Christmas with my family. On Christmas Day, my wife and I opened a special gift from our daughter and son-in-law Jimmy. Looking at it from every angle, we realized it was an ultrasound picture of our first grandchild—a boy! I now had a new goal—to be in the room when my first grandson was born.

I will never find words that could express how I felt when I saw that precious baby born, being with my family to witness this miracle, hugging him and looking into his eyes. Another goal had been reached.

What next? Tahiti!

My wife and I had dreamed of going to Tahiti for 36 years. Now there was only one problem. My doctor would not clear me to take the 10-hour flight to get there. After many very good checkups and a promise to wear pressure stockings and walk in the plane every hour, I got the green light.

When I saw the cruise ship we would be on, I was overwhelmed by all the wonderful things the previous four years had brought. Lying on the white sand beach in Bora Bora with my high-school sweetheart after all we had been through was unbelievable.

After four hard years of treating cancer, I was alive and as well as could be expected. What could be left? Another ultrasound gave us our first look at our second grandson. Seeing my second grandson when it was such a long shot to see my first was over the top for me.

As I write this, it has been six years since I was given “the bad is very bad” news. Yes, I have a lot of collateral damage from the cancer and chemo. No, I will never be the same again, but in some ways, I am more alive than I have ever been.

Every family milestone, every holiday celebrated, every “I love you, Papa,” from one of my grandsons means more to me today than ever before. The cancer has changed me, and I’m grateful every day. If you have cancer, fight the battle, but cherish the change.

Jim is now celebrating four years of remission, his 38th year of marriage with his high school sweetheart and his three grandchildren. He credits faith, family and the outstanding service and care of his team at the Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Kootenai Cancer Center in Post Falls, Idaho for his health.