Conversations about cancer “back in the day”, like during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s were quite rare (I was only around for two of those decades – trick statement, you can figure out easily which one). Cancer back then, nearly always carried a negative stigma, with many thinking cancer was contagious, which of course is one of the biggest myths with contracting anything from someone being treated for cancer with any of the drugs residual effects a close second. No, sadly, the only time I really heard cancer was when someone had died from it.
In the Summer of 1986, an employment opportunity came up for me which caused me to take leave from college, quite stupidly with only one semester to go from graduating. But I was young and stupid, and was driven by an opportunity to make a lot of money – what young and stupid person would not have wanted that? It took me to the Pocono area of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, a very friendly little area, and one with a very reasonable cost of living. But to get started, I needed some help.
My grandmother, everyone called her “Grandma” whether you were her actual grandchild lived to help others. This is all I knew of her, and to this day I live my life the same way that she taught me – take care of others and they will take care of you in your time of need. She believed it, and lived it. I needed to secure an apartment, but with no money to do so, she loaned it to me. Now that by itself might not make such an interesting story. What grandparent would not help their grandchild?
I had just moved into my apartment, about a month after my grandmother helped me secure the apartment. The telephone rang. It was my mother informing me that my grandmother’s surgery for breast cancer went well. (Cue the screeching train wreck sound!). Now you have to understand, my family had always been notorious for keeping things to themselves (prior to the days of my cancer). We did not talk about emotions, and we most certainly did not talk about bad things like cancer. The only thing I remember about that phone call was the anger at my grandmother finding out that she had cancer, and instead of worrying about herself, she instead put me up in an apartment. But that is how she was.
I immediately drove back home to visit with my grandmother. But after the two hour drive, I had a lot of time to settle my emotions, to get back in check that this was how my grandmother was. The anger of why she would take care of my need before taking care of her own, had changed to the priority of getting her well. I loved my grandfather, her husband, though I only knew him briefly before he passed. But my grandmother was my life.
Somehow she expected me to show up in her hospital room. I recall having a tear in my eye, being brushed back by the “it’ll be alright” smile on my grandmother’s face. At that moment, she said, “at least I will be able to wear some of your shirts during my recovery” making light of an unpleasant situation as well as making me aware that she had gone through a mastectomy. And of course, no grandson wants to talk boobies with his grandmother, but let us just say, she was serious, she was going to be able to fit into my shirts now, needing a button down shirt for her recovery and of course my frame up there did not stand out like hers.
Of course, then it was back to the usual silence. I had never really heard any further about my grandmother’s cancer. I honestly do not know any chemo, if any, she received.
But in November of 1988, I found myself in need of an oncologist for myself as I had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And since I knew absolutely no one else who had ever taken on cancer, and beaten cancer, I could not have asked for a better inspiration than my grandmother. After all, she was a couple of years into her recovery, and clearly the doctor who saved her life, would be the one that I challenged to save my life.
Long story short, that positive approach I believe made the difference in not only my longevity, but in my ability to deal with treatments and eventually reach remission. She stood by me the entire way, and yes, we did not really discuss anything about the journey. We did not have to. We just knew.
Ten years later, at the age of 83, I lost my grandmother to another round of cancer, this time ovarian. Unlike the time when she was diagnosed with her breast cancer, my experience as a cancer patient myself made me more sensitive to the things going on with this battle. But no matter my experience, it was no match for my grandmother. The one thing she was great at, was protecting those that she loved from harm, whether it was physical or emotional. The words of the surgeon made me very suspicious when he told us that he had gotten all the cancer, but then went on to describe his plans for my grandmother with preventative treatment. The length and amount of treatment he described to me, made no sense as preventative, but rather actual treatment. Something was clearly wrong. But to this day, we will never know. The day before my grandmother was supposed to start chemo, she passed away. She knew this day was coming, and succeeded in keeping us all from being sad, watching the days go by, wondering if that was going to be the last day, instead, enjoying the life we had with her.
I sat across from her in her home the day before she passed. She had just gotten her hair cut very short for us to get used to when her hair would start falling out from the chemo. But I noticed her treatment books (how to deal with them) had not been opened. And although I am jumping ahead, unbeknownst to her sister and roommate of over forty years, she had already picked out clothing for her to be buried in, even my aunt was unaware. But as I sat with my grandmother, I looked over at her, clearly her thoughts were else where. But in my final conversation with her…
“what’s the matter grandma?”
“I just want to get this over with.”
We just sat there in silence for a few minutes. Then I got up and left to run some errands. The next day I was at church running a function for the youth group I was in charge of. A telephone call had come that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital, fluid was filling her lungs. In defiance, I changed my priority to want to be by her side, instead of my responsibilities to the youth group, and this should have been the thing to do. I was told, “your grandmother wants you to finish what you are doing. She will be okay. She isn’t going anywhere.” Two hours later, I got another phone call.
I miss you so much.