When I Needed to Talk

January 8, 2020

One cancer survivor discusses the need to talk to others during and after her treatment, and the healing ability of listening as well.

When my cancer first came back, one of my sisters was simultaneously diagnosed with a stage four head/neck cancer. I hardly know what to say about that period of time, even today. She endured a horrible 15-hour surgery that included taking a small bone from her lower leg and creating a lower jaw out of it. She came out of this surgery no longer able to eat solid food and had a stomach feeding tube. We were both going through chemotherapy and she was also having radiation.

The anger over our situation threatened to overwhelm me and the grief of watching my sister lose ground was stunning. The usual questions — Why me? Why her? Why this family? What did we ever do to deserve this?

My gyn/onc recommended a counselor who worked only with cancer patients. The first time I saw her I sat in the chair and swore for half an hour. The next time, I cried, as the pictures of my dear sister played over and over in my mind; on my third visit, after my sister died, I was able to talk. I could finally accept the situation and try to move on.

The next time I needed to talk to someone was during my recovery from my third surgery for ovarian cancer, a year after my sister’s passing. The single cancerous lymph node was located between my aorta and vena cava, declared inoperable by my gyn/onc. My son helped me find a clinical trial that would take me if they could get one of their surgeons to operate, and then I would enter their clinical vaccine trial if I survived the operation. On a scale of one to ten in terms of difficulty, my surgeon declared afterward it was an eleven, but I survived. I came out of the surgery unable to picture a future (we were literally in the process of moving across country to live near our son), unable to raise my head or hold it normally, probably due to the positioning during surgery. I could not sit up without feeling nauseous.

This “recovery” period was totally unlike the first and second ones. I did not know who I was going to be anymore, me who had always rebounded from everything. All our possessions were in storage; we were between houses and leaving 21 years in Maine and the best friends I had ever had. Could I even continue to be a writer if I was going to start over in another state? I felt pretty crappy.

This third surgery took place at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois, while en-route to Portland, Oregon, where I have now lived since 2013. Though I am not a Catholic, I was raised in the church and Sunday school life. The priest at Loyola came to comfort me, also a counselor, who returned daily while I was in hospital. This counselor called me twice after I was released to check and see that I was okay, which meant a great deal. With the help of the priest and counselor, I was once again able to move forward as best I could.

There is no such thing as “closure,” as we all know if we have lost someone. My sister’s death was a milestone, where I took a fork in the road. She is always in my heart and it is now seven years since her passing. As for my situation, I was pretty much a zombie for the first six months here in my new home. I had to undergo five weeks of daily abdominal radiation before entering the clinical trial and that was rough.

Why talk to someone outside friends and family? No matter how well-meaning and caring, the day-to-day help they give, and the love and grief, no one can really understand the horrible places we “go” in our heads at the dark times. At this point in my family’s continuing avalanche of cancer, I talk to my surviving sister, who is now a caregiver for a husband with cancer, and to my brother who survived AML in 2016. Outside of these close loved ones, I can always talk to a fellow volunteer at the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance of Oregon and SW Washington, or those I volunteer with through Oregon Health Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute.

I can talk and they will listen; they can talk, and I will listen.


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