Divorce vs. Cancer, by Mary Beth

January 20, 2012

I have not blogged on this site in quite some time. I just had my 5 year and 6 month check-up and I am good, a few minor problems but let me emphasize minor. The past year has been a very difficult and trying one. After 28 years of marriage I found the courage to ask for a divorce.

I have always been afraid of divorce. I am not sure if it was because I was so young when we met. If I was afraid of being alone… which is a funny concept because I have felt alone for much of my marriage. I was afraid of what others would think. I was afraid of the kid sharing. I was afraid that once I asked for a divorce he would not support us. I was worried about money, which is also a funny concept because I was worried about money with him too….probably more so. I was afraid because he was my first love. I was afraid to have to try to meet someone else to spend my life with and now even more so as a cancer survivor, with a double mastectomy. I was afraid because I love the idea of marriage and family and I desperately wanted to have a long-term marriage and a good family life for my kids.

We had talked about divorce many times and in fact were very close in 2006 and then the cancer diagnosis. We stayed together, but in hindsight I think that was the final nail in the marriage coffin… thank goodness in was not the final nail in my coffin. I learned so many lessons from my cancer, mostly what is truly important. It changed me in so many ways. I guess I thought it would change the others close to me too. I have learned that just because we learn lessons, it does not mean everyone else does. So many times after the cancer I felt like the glorified nanny and housekeeper. There were many issues that I could not talk about then, that I hope someday I can share in case other women experience the same with their marriages.

Over the past 5 years since my diagnosis, those that knew of my marital problems would say “you survived cancer, you can survive divorce”. I heard what they were saying, but I just could not find that courage. I felt cancer was different. I had a team of doctors that I trusted. They said “do this” and I knew I would do it and follow their directions to the letter. There is no trust in divorce… another funny thought because there was no trust in my marriage either. I was not blessed with being able to trust those who are supposed to love and protect you.

I was so afraid of asking for a divorce and then having my cancer come back, what would I do? I don’t know if my cancer will come back, but I know if I stayed it definitely would. I found the courage. Divorce is hard, but cancer is harder.

On the tough divorce issue days I think of the other Mothers on this site who are fighting their cancer daily, hourly and by the minute. I think of the women that we have lost and their valiant fight, they remind me everyday what is truly important and then I remind myself… “if I survived cancer… then I can survive divorce.”

Please say a prayer or lots of prayers and healing thoughts for one of our fearless and amazing leaders, Susan, she has been having some breathing and pain issues and was admitted to the ER on Tuesday.

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Regarding the Children

September 12, 2009

Shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis, in the midst of meeting with surgeons and oncologists, I paid  a visit to the family resource room at Dana-Farber.  I was told they offered free books and materials that would help my children deal with the trauma of  having a parent with cancer.  I walked out of there loaded down with paraphernalia, ready to attack any question or fear my kids would face. It’s interesting now, almost two years later, to look back and see exactly how each child handled the turmoil.

The backpacks they gave me for each  of my kids were broken down by age.  My 14 year old son received a different book to read and an older version of the journal that my 11 and 8-year-old were given.  The younger kids got a stuffed animal and some Wikki-Stiks. I understand why they were broken down by age but that is not the only indication of how they will react.  Children not only deal with trauma differently at various ages but it is their sex and personality as well as placement in the family that also go a long way in gauging their reactions. It would be too  easy to say, alright we know for a fact, any 12-14 year old will react this way and all 8-11 year old’s will react that way.

Once I gave the kids their backpacks and showed them the contents, I have to be honest, I kind of dropped the ball.  I do remember sitting with my 8-year-old daughter and seeing what she drew about her fears, but my middle son didn’t pay too much attention to his stuff. I have seen the book they gave my 14-year-old on his desk in his room, in a somewhat prominent position which makes me think he may have read it a few times, but whenever I asked him about it I got the same answer, “I don’t want to talk about it.”  Now I am not stupid enough to actually believe that, I understand that he needed to talk about it but I didn’t quite have the energy to drag it out of him at the time.
Part of me has been thankful for this traumatic event in my kids lives.  I grew up surrounded by turmoil. The youngest of seven in an Irish family left me with a whole host of opportunity at dealing with the tragic.  Suicide, car accidents, prison time, drug addiction ,alcoholism,religious fanaticism,schizophrenia — I saw it all. At the time would I have loved to be a little more sheltered from all of that?  Maybe.  One thing is for sure though;  there is not too many problems you can throw at me now, as an adult, that I can’t handle. Because of this, I probably didn’t coddle my children as much as someone else might have when I found out that I had cancer. I think that kids need to deal with difficulties.  It’s what makes them resilient. It’s what life is about. Shit happens, and unfortunately will continue to happen.  It’s important to teach our kids how to handle scary and disappointing events in our lives.

So what I did, instead of the round table discussions and the open talk of feelings that was highly recommended to me, was that I fought through treatment –I cried a lot, got angry, yelled a little more than usual but also spent time with each of them doing the things they love.  I tried to go out of my way a little more and appreciate their sheer existence in my life. And I showed them by example, that I wasn’t going to lay down and let this take over me. I beat it back a little.  Mostly I tried like hell to keep everything as much as ‘normal’ as I could. There were some tough moments, but we all made it through.

Did  my approach work? How have my kids turned out? Let’s see. My oldest son, after dealing with his own knee surgery this year, is walking around saying that God does not exist.

“What kind of God gives you cancer and then messes up my knee so I can’t play sports?”

Good Question –one I can’t answer, but I do believe that even without my cancer, he would be having the same struggles with God at his age.  This is normal, we all go through it. He is a self-centered teen.

Son #2 — the middle Guy.  Sometimes when things happen to me, like knocking myself out with a rocking chair, falling down at Fenway, or having my appendix out, he cries and hugs me and says “Why does everything bad have to happen to you?”  He seems very protective of me.  Is that because of the cancer?  Maybe.  But his general personality lends itself to over-feeling and since he is the middle child, he is always going to be the most loving. So I would say he also came through with flying colors.

Onto my 9-year-old daughter. Oy. There were times throughout my treatment when I felt like my whole cancer journey affected her the most.  She certainly was the most vocal about it.  She cried and worried about losing me.  She became afraid of things like hospitals and didn’t like it when I was not home. On chemo days she would sometimes cry in school. I was probably the most proactive with her in terms of helping her through the turmoil, as a girl and the youngest I could relate to her more so I did things like taking her to chemo with me so she could see how ‘un-scary’ it was.

How is she now? Last week as I lay on the couch after having my appendectomy, I called for my husband to help me. My daughter, who was waiting for a ride from him to her friend’s house, stood with her arms crossed, and watched me writhe in pain.

“Get…DADDY,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Jeesh Mom, it’s not like you are gonna die or anything,” she callously said and then turned on her heels and yelled,

“Dad, can you drive me to Caitlin’s?”

I know what you are thinking.  What a bitch.  I thought the same thing too.  But now I realize, no, she has come through the trauma of her mom having cancer, just fine.  Of course I am not gonna die.  She gets that now.  She has seen me come through a lot worse than an appendectomy so to her this was no big deal. What was bothering her was the power struggle that was ensuing –we both needed daddy at that moment, and she was damn sure she was going to win. Normal? I think so.

So regarding my children, I would say, they have all managed just fine. I can’t say that I did everything correctly and  I know that these last two years have left as many scars on them as are on my own chest, but I truly believe that to go through this life with any kind of gusto, you must bear some battle scars.  My kids may have been sadder than their fiends last year or a little more worried but hopefully they walk away from my cancer  a little stronger and a lot smarter than they were before — and hopefully much more resilient.  


July 14, 2009

(cross posted from Coffee and Chemo)

This is what I felt two weeks ago, when I first learned about my brain mets.
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I was devastated.

My first thought, beyond my own anguish, was how to tell my mom.
(fast forward: My parents were really terrific when I told them. Though they were clearly distraught by the news, they did not freak out. They asked intelligent questions, understood that I did not have all the answers, and just continued to shower me with love and encouragement.)

It was not until one of the nurses asked me about it, that I realized I would have to tell my kids.

In those first few moments, I did not know whether to tell them right away or not. We did not have much information and we honestly would not be able to answer many questions. Yet I did not now how I could not tell my kids right away. I could not stop crying; I would have to explain why. Even if I could stop crying, my kids are smart and sensitive, they would figure out that something is wrong.

I also realized that I could not talk, or write, about any of this until they knew. It would be unfair to tell other people before them. Not only do they have the right to know what is going on, but I do not want them to have to deal with other people’s reactions from a position where the other person knows what is going on and they don’t.

I would basically have little or no support until the kids knew. That seemed unfair as well. My decision about when to tell the kids should be about them, not about me. On the other hand, this news was so big, how could I just pretend everything was “normal.”

I consulted with the social worker. As she spoke with us, I realized that I felt quite strongly about telling the kids before they suspected anything was wrong.

Maybe if I found out during the week, life would be so busy that I could put it off telling them for a few days, until we had more information and more answers. But the next day was Shabbat, when we spend so much intense time together. The kids would pick up on the non-verbal stuff, even if Moshe and I were careful not to discuss anything around them.

Unacceptable. I never want my kids to feel like we are hiding things from them. Knowing that we are completely open and upfront with them gives them the confidence to take what we tell them at face value and not be troubled by infinite doubts and fears.

On the way home, Moshe and I discussed this further. Moshe suggested playing things by ear. We did not have to decide right now. We could wait a bit and see how things go.

That took a lot of pressure off. We had time. Time to absorb the news ourselves and time to figure out how to frame the news to our kids. No one would be home for several hours.

Moshe wondered if he should stay home with me. He had a major deadline at work, so I insisted that he go in to work. I would be fine.

I called a close friend, who I knew would be a good listener. She was not home.

I called another close friend. It was good to talk with her.

Then, I was alone. Alone with this aweful news.

Later, the first friend called back. When she heard the news, she offered to come right over. She has five small kids and it is often challenging for her to get out but, at that moment, she could come. I decided to stop stuggling to keep it all together — “Yes,” I accepted her offer, “please come.”

My friend was still over when my youngest daughter came home. My daughter had some things to do for school (remember, this was two weeks ago), so she went into the computer room to work. I told her that I would be in my room, with my friend. We spoke for an hour or so. Though I still felt overwhelmed and extremely frightened, I also felt calmer and ready to face the world. More importantly, I felt ready to face my kids.

That evening, our home was filled with more than the usual chaos. I had spent the day in turmoil. Moshe spent the day dealing with all the beaurocracy of my new diagnosis. My eldest spent the day at the beach with friends of hers from school and came home exhausted and full of energy at the same time, as only teenagers can be! My son spent the afternoon at school, preparing for their end-of-the-year play (more on that another time). And my youngest finally finished the project that she had to turn in to her teacher. Everyone wanted my attention!

Did I mention I had tickets to a play that night?

OK, there was no way I could listen to all my kids, share what I had to share, help them absorb it and leave to see a play. Something had to go. I decided I could wait to share my news.

So, I listened as everyone clamored for attention, loving the healthy chaos of it all.

Then I pulled myself together, put a smile on my face, and went out to have a good time.


Laurie is… Not Done Yet

April 17, 2009

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One of our own has just had her book published. Not Done Yet …Living Through Breast Cancer. I received my copy over Spring Break, my daughter was relaxing and my son was playing in the neighborhood with his friends so I decided to sit down and get started.

 

My first thought when I started reading was this book is a quick and easy read. Quick yes… but as I read further I do not think easy is the correct adjective. What Laurie writes about is not easy subject matter. She has taken a very difficult subject and written it into an easy to read format. I read through Parts One and Two very quickly. I sat shaking my head in agreement when my experience was similar. We all know that even though we may be diagnosed with breast cancer… there are many types and therefore many different treatments that may be prescribed.

 

The hard part for me came in Part Three: Metastasis, or “Worst Case Scenario”. This was so hard for me to read. I do not have metastasis and I did not want to imagine myself dealing with what Laurie has had to deal with. I put the book down for a day or so. Then I told myself… “This is not about me… this is Laurie’s story so just suck it up and keep reading.”

 

I took the book to my hair appointment and continued reading. I am so glad that I did. I learned much about Laurie throughout the book. From the colorful “knitted” cover photo right through her last post about learning a life lesson from her dog.

There were entries that I laughed while reading… Monday, July 3, 2006 as her boys pretended to be Wolverine.  The most touching entry to me… Wednesday, October 10, 2007 Etching Myself in their Memories … spontaneous tears ran down my cheeks right there in the hair salon. I share those same haunting thoughts.

 

I am glad that I had the chance to learn more about Laurie. I applaud her courage, her creativity and her approach to life. “Metastatic cancer has not ended my life; it has just caused me to live my life differently.” If my story becomes more similar to Laurie’s, I hope I proceed with the same courage and positive outlook.

 

As I read each post I found myself checking the date of the post and then checking today’s date and reflecting “okay, that was a year ago or two years ago”… thank goodness… she is not done yet!!


Why is that funny?

March 17, 2009

(cross posted, and edited a bit, from Coffee and Chemo)
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On our way home tonight, tired and giddy, my kids and I were laughing about the whole cancer thing. (I know it sounds strange but, trust me, it was funny)

“What is a support group?” asked my youngest daughter.

My eldest daughter jumped in and answered that my support group is “for women with cancer.”

“Not just any old cancer,” I pointed out.

“OK, women with breast cancer,” my eldest corrected herself.

“Not necessarily breast cancer,” I corrected her this time, “women with metastasis.”

“What’s metastasis?” my youngest asked, still confused.

Here, my son jumped in “cancer that is not going away.”

It might sound like a heavy conversation, but it was really quite lighthearted.

I mentioned that, earlier in the day, my sister mercilessly referred to my group as “poor, sick people who sit around talking about cancer.” my eldest, my son, and I burst out laughing.

“Why is that funny?” my youngest asked, even more confused.

“It’s not,” I answered, after a brief pause…. “which is why it is so funny!”

And we burst out laughing some more.


The 20-Year-Plan

February 5, 2009
(cross posted from Coffee and Chemo)
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Something has been bothering me for a while now.
 
A few weeks ago (or maybe it was a few months ago), during one of my meetings with my oncologist to discuss switching to Taxol, I casually asked if this change is going to “interfere with my 20-year-plan.”
 
My doctor immediately became serious.  “Who gave you that number?” he queried, adding “I did not give you that number.”
 
“I know,” I responded, reassuringly.
 
I completely made up that number.  It is a random number, representing my intention to live with this cancer-thing for a long time. 
 
But then, I got worried.
 
“Why,” I challenged, joking, “is it too short?”  Then, I added, verbalized my fear, “Or is it too long?” 

But my oncologist would not play that game.

“I do not do numbers,” he declared, quite seriously, “You know that.”

I do.  But the Pandora’s Box was open.  Perhaps I was just living in my own little fantasy world.

So, today, I got up my courage and asked, “Am I deluding myself?”

Now, though this conversation has been plaguing me for months, it was not immediately obvious to my oncologist that I was referring to his comment about my 20-year-plan.  So, I reminded him of our conversation and, a little bolder now, repeated my question.  “Am I deluding myself?”

“It’s a bit of a long shot,” began my oncologist. (ouch)  I imagine my face fell a bit. “I am not telling you something you do not know;” he continued, leaning forward in his chair, eyes locked on mine, “you are familiar with the statistics.  But you also know that I do not make predictions.” (yeah, I know)

He cited a patient of his who has been living with metastatic breast cancer for 23 years. (He did not give me any details, of course)

“It is reasonable,” he continued, a bit softer, “to plan for the future.”

And, though it is unusual for him to give his opinion about what I should do, he added, “I think it is right to live your life that way.”

I wish I could remember exactly what else he said, because he gave me a rare compliment about how I am handling living with cancer exceptionally well.  It was really nice.

Then he asked me if I knew I had 18 months left to live, would I do anything different?

I said I would get things in order.  To which he responded, quite sternly, “you should do that anyway, and it has nothing to do with cancer.” 

Then he continued, “my guess is that if you knew that you had only a year and a half left to live, you would accelerate your lifestyle, not slow it down.”

I conceded that his assessment was accurate.  But still, I persisted. “I talk with my children about the future, even about the long-term future.”

I wanted him to understand that it was important to me not to be deluding myself, and also not to be deluding my family.

He got it. 

“Planning for the future is the best thing you can do for both you and your children.” 

He wanted to make sure that I got it too.

I got it.


Haircut

January 12, 2009
(cross posted and edited from Coffee and Chemo)
 
I was hoping that I would be lucky this time too.

Despite a few days of hair loss, most of my hair remained on my head during the past year or so of chemo. So, when my hair started falling out this time, I hoped that it would stop after a few days. (Never mind that my doctor said it would probably not fall out last time and that it probably would fall out this time — feelings are not rational)

It has already been two weeks, and every day I comb out more hair.

A few days ago, I posted here about losing my hair. Mary Beth Volpini, commented on the post:

I read a great saying a long time ago …
”If you don’t know what to do…don’t until you do.”

The simple truth of those words touched my inner soul.

I was not yet ready to say good-bye to my hair.

I was torn. Though I was not yet ready to “cut it all off,” I wanted to save part of my hair. I wanted to save my braid, which was getting thinner and thinner every day. I did not want to wait too long.

The other night, I watched several YouTube videos of women with cancer who shaved their heads.

Several mothers chose to involve their children in the shaving/cutting. I thought this was a great idea. When I first suggested it to my girls, they were appalled by the idea. I let it go. Not every good idea is good for every family.

Today, after swimming, I had to ask a friend to help remove all the hairs that fell off and stuck to my back. That was it. When she asked me “why don’t you cut it short?” I realized the time had come.

On our way home, I mentioned to A, who was the only child with me, that I wanted to cut off my braid tonight. We talked a bit about our feelings.

“It makes me sad,” A said sweetly, “I like your hair.”

“Me too,” I admitted.

We were quiet for a few moments. Then I asked her, “Would you like to help me cut it off?” Without hesitating, she answered “yes.”

When I got home, I told Y that I was going to cut off my braid and that A was going to help cut it. Then I asked her if she wanted to help cut it off too. To my surprise, she also answered yes right away.

I then asked MD, who answered just as quickly “I am not part of this.” We all laughed.

I told Moshe, who asked, surprised, “You want to do this now?”

I was hurrying to get ready for a simcha (celebration), but the timing was right.

“I want to do this now,” I answered, definitively.

I got our our barber shears and gave them to Y, who began cutting off my braid. Then, she passed them on to her sister. While A was cutting, Y came around to give me a hug. I felt surrounded by love and caring.

It took less than five minutes. I combed my fingers through what was left of my hair.

“It looks cute,” Y said. Then she noticed that the ends were not even. She took the shears, studied my face, and evened out the ends. “There,” she stated when she was finished. “You should put in some clips to hold the hair out of your face,” she added, and ran to get some for me.

And then it was done. I went to get dressed for the simcha.

“Nice haircut,” said one of my friends, later in the evening, noticing the short ends sticking out from under my scarf.

I smiled, and she realized why I cut it.

“Still,” she said, acknowledging the loss, “it looks good on you.”