I Have Some Regrets Around How I Handled My Wife’s Cancer

Upon reflecting on my late wife's cancer experience, one of my major regrets is not properly saying goodbye.

In 2008, I lost my wife, Bonnie, to melanoma after she underwent four years of treatment for the disease.

After this loss, I had to find a way to console myself. My first inclination was to reflect on the experience and any possible regrets.Was there something more I should have, would have, could have, done? After more than a decade, doubts still haunt me. Now, I can only piece together the journey and examine what was done.

First, I reflect on how we handled the news and treatment with our children. We decided early on to be honest and not to allow pity and the thoughts of “Why me?” to enter the conversation. Before 2010, the truth was harsh. We were told at that time survival of metastatic melanoma was around 3%. We were also told to just worry about surviving three months because that was nearly how often advances are made. After talking to my kids about this years later, I realized I have no regrets in this aspect of the journey.

Second, I think about medical care. We are fortunate to live near Portland, Oregon, where we had access to some of the top melanoma researchers in the country. The only treatment available at the time was interleukin-2, a very aggressive early form of immunotherapy. My wife was in good health and was considered able to tolerate this treatment.

Our doctor was honest in the severity of the treatment so we prepared as best we could. I arranged time off from work for her weeklong stays in the hospital and each week of recuperation upon returning home. Our doctor was exacting in his work. Regardless of what the scan reports said, he insisted on examining the images personally. Unfortunately, she did not respond to this treatment.

Next came expanded medical treatment in 2007. The internet and Google searches are now mainstream, but researching clinical studies were still hit or miss and not all facilities had access to or were even aware of some of the clinical trials going on. We were fortunate that her treatment center was a part of a clinical trial for Yervoy (ipilimumab), the first of multiple immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors approved for melanoma. Though Bonnie had not responded to the treatment, we felt fortunate to have had the chance to try.

Shortly after this trial she passed away. I can confidently say I have no regrets in what was done medically.

But regarding our personal life, was there something I missed that I could have done better at home? Bonnie was a proud woman and took great pride in caring for our home and family. When she became too weak to do this, it led me to a pattern of cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping at night when she was asleep. I was hiding work, so it was less noticeable and hopefully kept her from feeling useless. This is something that does console me as it feels like the one gift I was able to give that truly mattered.

All this said, I do have regrets. One is I wish we had taken more day trips to the beach on the days she had the energy.

My major regret is not properly saying goodbye. Up until her last day, I don’t know if it was denial or faith, I just believed she was going to get better. The afternoon before her passing her children, a few friends and her pastor all went to her room to visit. I was in and out of her room, though it is still a bit hazy in my memories. I do know I never sat long enough to have that conversation. I was able to tell my children she was at the end but could not face her and admit it. The only time it was mentioned was at our last doctors’ appointment and we learned we were out of options.

She looked at me and said, “I don’t want to die!” I could not admit to her “This is the end.”

No matter what we do in life, we will always have regrets — those things we think we should have or could have done better. All we can do is try to live with as few regrets as we are able. And with the few we do have, accept, learn from and do not repeat.

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