My Wife Has Breast Cancer… Again.
We are 4 days out from the first infusion of chemotherapy drugs. Stacey is running a low-grade fever. Her body is at war. She’s on the couch sleeping. Right now, it feels like our whole existence is a big mess.
August 1st was a cruel day. That day Stacey received a call from her breast surgeon with the diagnosis; the cancer has returned – Stage 1. Aren’t we lucky to have caught it so early? Yes…so lucky. Just a few hours earlier we had received the news that our friend had passed away after his 7-year battle with cancer. I was at home with our children and sat them down to tell them what had happened to our friend. To pray with them and for all of our friends who were grieving in that moment. To pray for Stacey who was also grieving. Stacey didn’t tell me of her diagnosis until she got home and my first thought was for our kids. Great – we just had a conversation about cancer and death, how am I going to handle this news?
This story started a little more than 6 years ago when Stacey was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a scary time, we had no idea what to expect. Stacey was in her mid 30s. Our two children were just starting in elementary school. Stacey elected to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction. The doctors said the chances of recurrence were extremely small. Probability statistics are not very meaningful when it turns out YOU are the 1 in 200.
Now, I’m dealing with all of this again, but differently. I’m older and we’ve covered a lot of ground in the last 6 years. There’s a continuum of people with loving concern and support on one end and fear and required assurance on the other. Our network of friends and family scattered all along that continuum. What does Stacey need? What do we need?
For two normally private people who have a hard time receiving from others – this is a difficult time. I know I need friends in my life, and I want to have stronger relationships and more intimate friends. But how do I balance setting good boundaries now and being open to receiving good care? The truth is we have a lot of needs (hard for me to even type out those words let alone publish them for the world to read or say them out loud). But when I think of asking for help I think back to one experience I had abroad...
After graduating high school, I was accepted into the Rotary Club International’s exchange program to spend a year in France. As Spring Break of that year approached it was clear that the Rotary Club was unsure what to do with me. All of my host families had made plans and the Rotarians wanted me to have a good week. The head of the local chapter approached me with an idea. “Would you like to go skiing?” I’d go alone, all expenses paid to the small village of L'Argentière-la-Bessée, where my ski guide would pick me up and take me to the mountain hostel where I would join his other clients for a week of guided backcountry skiing (ski de randonée).
I think he barely finished the words “skiing” before I said YES!!! Spring Break came and as I boarded the train my host mother asked me if I had enough money? Oh yeah, I said. I had a whopping 450 Francs in my pocket – at that time about the equivalent of $50. I spent a few dollars during the train ride to get a snack. When I arrived in the Alps it was dumping snow. Could it be any more perfect?
We stopped to have drinks after lunch each day, and my fellow skiers suggested that we each take turns buying a round of coffee for the group. Of course, I wanted to participate and quickly calculated that would take about $30 of what remained of my $50. I started to get nervous that something would happen and I would be stuck without money. I knew I would forego eating on the train ride home.
The week was amazing, but I had managed on the bare minimum, skiing during the day and reading in the sitting room in the evenings, happily falling exhausted into my spartan bunk every night. I had only brought one pair of wool ski socks with me on this trip, and had worn them daily. I also had not thought to bring soap or shampoo with me. So each night I took a hot shower and tried to rinse the stink off from skiing. But by this time I was starting to smell bad, and my socks were the worst of it. I would hang them every evening to dry out and be ready to go the next day. This last night of the trip, I hung them in my cubby where I was keeping my stuff and crawled into my upper bunk in the co-ed dormitory of the hostel. Everyone was in bed and the lights were out when I heard a few of the women start to chatter. “What is that smell!?”
“Oh pew – something stinks!”
One of the women accused a guy in a voice loud enough to hear, “It’s that guy from Paris”.
Then he said back, “No, it’s the American”… I was caught. I lay as still as I could in my bed, mortified, feeling like there was no escape. Maybe if I just pretended to be asleep.
The next morning I “slept in” staying under the sheet of my bunk until I was sure everyone had left the hostel. As I gathered my things to leave, I noticed that the man I had been skiing with left his body wash on top of my cubby (so I couldn’t miss it). I grabbed the bottle and hit the shower, my first with soap in over a week. It felt good to be genuinely clean and not just rinsed off. I got lucky that someone noticed and decided to help.
Why did I tell you about my ski vacation in the French Alps? Because I’ve realized in the last year, my life is a lot like that story. I am incredibly lucky – my children are healthy, I love my house, and I love my work. I have everything I need to survive and I have people who love me, but my wife is sick and from time to time I may need to just ask for help.
Like in my story, most of the time I choose to buy a round of drinks for my friends and skip the soap. It’s OK, how can I possibly complain? Why didn’t I tell my host mom that I only had $50? Why didn’t I ask my skiing companions if I could borrow some soap? Why didn’t I let anybody know that I didn’t have any money left to buy something to eat on the train ride home?
I’m trying not to live that way anymore. I’m trying to be more vulnerable and hopefully more interconnected. I plan to let people know when I need some soap. And even if no one responds, it’s OK because I’m still skiing in the Alps! But at least I won’t be suffering any longer because of my own silence and self-abuse. Walking in my own smelly shoes for a week taught me that being vulnerable is better than looking like I have it all under control. It’s easier to express empathy for those around us if we know where they are at. Unless we can be vulnerable, it’s hard to know what is needed, smelly socks and all.