There’s No Good Way to Learn You Have Cancer

textsI think we rooted for lymphoma on Wednesday.

I lose track, because we rooted for so many terrible diseases that week. I know it was after we stopped rooting for a rare, life-threatening infection, something that would explain the lesions and swelling in my wife, Loren’s, lungs and brain. We rooted for that all day Tuesday, the day I cried in the shower and whispered and prayed, “Please don’t let this be the way you take her away from me. Please don’t let this be the way.”

I know it was long after two young, long-faced ER doctors walked into our lives Monday night, closed the door, and leaned against the counter.

“We got the results from your CT scan,” one of them said, taking a deep breath. “It looks like you have metastatic brain cancer. We’ll give you a moment.”

I remember now. We rooted for lymphoma on Thursday, the day before a histologist confirmed that Loren had stage four breast cancer.

*****

Loren didn’t seem quite right the week before her diagnosis. We were in Sonoma County, visiting wineries. Loren was tired and took a nap most every afternoon. She was unusually agreeable, too – going along with my suggestions without her usual debate – but she was getting over a bad cold and had just finished teaching summer quarter at Palmer College of Chiropractic.

But Loren had trouble walking. Not all the time, but every now and then, especially when getting out of the car. She stumbled after a minute or two, weak on the left side, and needed to sit down for a moment. But then she was okay.

We thought it might be a pinched nerve – or worse, maybe a minor stroke. The young ER doctors at O’Connor hospital in San Jose thought it was a stroke, too, and they tested her repeatedly.

“Raise both arms, smile, don’t let us push down on your foot,” they said.

“Can you feel this?” they asked, lightly touching both sides of her face.

“Can you feel that?” they asked, lightly touching both sides of her legs. “Hmm. It doesn’t look like a stroke, but we’re going to order a head CT just to be sure.”

****

Our primary care physician confirmed the biopsy results and handed us off to an oncologist at the Stanford Cancer Center South Bay Friday morning. He met with us in person – “This isn’t the kind of thing you do over the phone,” he said – and wished us well. “You’ll have to decide what you want to do with your time,” he added. “Maybe keep working, maybe not. You should decide what’s important to you.”

Since then, Loren and I have talked about end of life directives and our general lack of regrets. We talk about money and make financial plans. I plan for the short term and Loren plans for the long term. I tell Loren I will take care of her and her job is to get well. She tells me her job is to figure things out now, while she’s well, so she can take care of me when she’s gone.

It’s overwhelming, but the outpouring of love and support from friends and family near and far, new and old, is overwhelming, too, but in a good way, a way that almost evens the score. Our friends Mike and Sharon dropped everything and drove up from L.A. the day they heard the news. Loren’s brothers flew in from Canada and Australia, and everyone is making plans to come see us in the next couple of months. We’re scheduling the visits one at a time, not because Loren’s not up to a crowd, but because we want to savor each and every person, each and every moment we have together.

Loren says I should remarry after she’s gone. But I don’t know what I will do. It’s too soon for that kind of thinking.

I do know, however, that if you are lucky enough to have a great love in your life, it’s inevitable that one of you will die first and the other will be left behind to die alone.

I’m happy it’s most likely going to be me.

Originally published November 8, 2016, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

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