Sunday, May 20, 2007

Putting Life in Order – When Cancer Hits Your Family (Published in Men's Health Today November 2006)

How does one equate life with order? Being a homemaker and a so-called “cleaning cum organizing” expert, friends, clients, family members, and even strangers would freely approach me with this question. Is it keeping an inventory of one’s belongings and sorting these according to function, color and style; is it keeping the whole house spotless; is it making sure everyone’s schedule is followed to a T; or having full control over one’s own resources?

If these were the only basis of having an orderly life, wow…life would be a bed of roses. Unfortunately, life offers a more complicated scheme of things. After seven years of married life and having adequate control over resources, schedule, activities, and space, all of these were taken from me.

Losing It

The word malignancy and carcinoma are two words that have haunted both my and my husband Jerry’s families. My sister had a rare tumor in her left optic nerve; I lost a grandfather to a rare form of leukemia; an aunt who underwent mastectomy for breast carcinoma, while my mom was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years back. Jerry, a senior banker in a foreign bank, lost his grandmother and two aunts to colon cancer and an uncle to prostrate cancer.

Having been exposed to this dreaded disease, both Jerry and I committed to our annual executive check-ups and promised a routine colonoscopy by the age of 40, which was next year for Jerry, to arrest any tumors at its early stage. With two very young children, ages 5 and 2, we had no choice but to be responsible adults.

Last March 5, 2004, I was stunned by the news that Jerry had colon cancer. There were no signs except for blood in his stool. Initially, we were expecting it to be at its early stages. A hemicolectomy procedure was required, this included cutting off the part of the colon infected by this dreadful disease and resetting it together with the clean colon. As for any other spread, we needed to wait until they open him up to see how far the cancer has gone and whether the surgeon can physically remove the tumors. The procedure took 5 hours, 30 mins. for the colon resection and the rest was consumed by palpating the rest of the nearby organs to see if there were any other spread. The surgeon found a total of 8 superficial tumors in the liver, all registered positive for cancer. Unfortunately, the surgeon could not touch it due to the locations. Best to leave it there and let chemo handle it. The rest of the organs are clean. Jerry has been classified as Duke Stage 4. All sense of control was lost.

Who’s Going to Wake Me Up?

The moment I found out about Jerry’s condition, it felt like I was in a very bad dream waiting to be awaken. Until today, no one has done me that favor. Initial reaction was to ask WHY? This drama in life happens to other people and not to me. Crying it out was not an option nor did I have the luxury of time to attend to my own anxiety, worry, or fear. People were somehow looking up to me for either strength or despair.

I consider myself a practicing Catholic yet my relationship with my Creator needed deepening. It was not a priority since client calls, gym classes, PTA meetings, and the like have booked my schedule. Life was too hectic to be bothered by thoughts of mortality.

Nevertheless, I struggled with my own will and decided to seek God’s help. My prayer was very demanding, ”Lord, you have no choice but to heal my husband. When the surgeon comes out, I expect him to say ‘Jerry is one lucky guy. It’s not cancer after all, it’s something else.’” I held on to this prayer with all of my heart and I claimed it. Yet, God seemed to have other things on His mind.

I no longer knew what to pray for after my initial encounter with God. He disappointed me so much that all I can say to Him was “just encourage and strengthen me. Help me tell Jerry the truth about his condition.”

The events that followed the surgery were roughed. Our estimated 7 day stay in the hospital extended to 21 days due to other complications: small intestines not working; a distended colon; coughing due to allergies; infection et al. Jerry had to submit his body to a lot of discomfort and pain. His 190 lbs. built shrunk to 165 lbs. in just a matter of three weeks.

When he was brought up to his room, he had an epidural line inserted on his spine, a drain bag attached on his wound, an IV with a machine that monitors the flow of solution coming from 3 different sources. He had so many tubes attached to him that he started calling himself an octopus. Blood was drawn from him several times a day.

What was most painful to both of us was being separated from our boys and depending on other people to care for them. Since we were just requesting relatives to watch over the boys, we could not demand for them to give the same kind of care that we give our children. We needed to make some allowances and to fully trust that no harm or illness would fall on them. Prayers were constantly offered for their caregivers – patience and love.

Unexpected Blessings and Restoring Order

In spite of all the pain and anxiety, Jerry has been a picture of courage, hope and inspiration. I once asked him if ever he felt anger. His response was ”how can I even feel any anger or bitterness when there’s just so much support and prayers coming from everyone including strangers.”

So how does one find order when it seems that all else has been lost? My answer is this…it is not how but who puts order in the first place. Initially, I expected the Lord to send me a great flood or some great manifestation of His power. Instead, I saw small miracles unfolding before my eyes each day of our stay in the hospital and thereafter.

Seeing your spouse getting up and trying to walk just a couple of days after surgery was a cause for celebration. Time spent with the kids was so scare that it is considered a precious commodity. Somehow, concerns and anxieties that used to consume us are now small stuff that surprisingly gets resolved on its own. We learned to choose our battles and thank God for both the good and the bad.
Cancer never stopped him from being at his best. He continued to work at the bank and truly excelled in it. I saw him have chemo at 9am, be done at 11am, be at the bank by 1pm to attend to meetings and clients. On the days he was not well, he would ask me to prepare either lunch or dinner for his staff and/or clients. Our house became a satellite branch of the bank. Even at his death bed, he closed 4 major deals for the bank.

The road to recovery was rocky. Jerry and I agreed not to worry or even think about tomorrow. We handed this over to God. We’ve learned to live each day a moment at a time and count the many blessings that we receive at this rate. Short term goals are now our cup of tea and quality time is very much in order. He turned out to be a much better planner/organizer than me or Jerry could ever be. How can you have fear when you know God is in control?

The Bravest of them All

May 15, 2006: The man I promised to love in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer… succumbed to cancer but not without a good fight. Jerry underwent a total of seven chemo protocols in a span of 14 months. None worked. Though his body was badly beaten, his spirit was not.

When he announced he wanted to go home and no more treatments, I saw in him a man who was full of courage. He was ready to accept God’s will for himself. He fought a good fight and it was up to him to decide when to say “it’s over.” Besides, it was his life and his body. The decision was really up to him, no one else’s.

He was truly the bravest man I have ever known.

Vows Fulfilled

Not everyone knows how it was like caring for someone suffering from cancer. Cancer does not only hit the patient but the whole family. I remember when I would wake up at 1am to rush Jerry to the hospital due to an infected porta cathe then take him home at 6am. My son, Chino, would be waiting for us worried that there will not be a parent with him for Family Day in school. Without a wink of sleep, I would just freshen up and off we go to his school activity.

I was once asked by friends if there were any regrets I felt when it came to caring for Jerry. Regret was one emotion that I never felt from the time Jerry was diagnosed up to this very day. True, caring for a sick person was not a walk in the park but I looked at it as an opportunity to care for someone I care deeply about even if I had to drop everything and if our world literally stopped.

As a last promise to my husband, I’m sharing with you the story of our journey together amidst this crisis and how one can cope with such.

Things to Do When Its Cancer

1. Know the enemy. Research about the cancer. The internet offers a treasure of information regarding all types of cancer. In one site I visited, they actually have a slide presentation of a hemicolectomy procedure. After watching, I felt more comfortable with the surgical procedure and did not feel as scared.
2. Ask questions. Always get a 2nd or 3rd opinion from specialists. Discuss possible approaches and treatments with the doctors. Do not forget to ask questions. Cancer is a life threatening disease and it needs to be understood.
3. Be honest. Anger, depression, grief, fear are feelings that come naturally not only for the patient but with the family members as well. Acknowledge these feelings and confront every one of them. It is also important to tell the patient the whole truth about his condition for the body and life belong to him and him alone. It is only fair so he can make the necessary decisions and to prepare for any eventuality.
4. Commit to normalcy. The biggest decision my husband and I made was to make things as normal as possible especially for the children. In spite of the chemotherapy sessions, Jerry continued to report for work and meet clients even at home. The children’s routine remained unchanged. Even if Jerry was rushed to the hospital at 1am, I would bring Chino to his Family Day at 6am. Their schedule was never interrupted. It helped us beat cancer by not allowing us to stop our world.
5. Practice self-care. For the caregiver/caring spouse, it is important that his/her world is not cloistered. True marital vows will take place but it is not a sin to take care of one’s self especially when the possibility of becoming a single parent is very much evident. Jerry was very supportive to the fact that I should have an outlet to release my fears, worries, and anxieties. This is called coping and it is very personal. The venue for me was writing and working out at the gym.
6. Be productive. Though life threatening, cancer is not a death sentence. I have come across a number of cancer survivors who were able to resume normal activities even during their chemo and thereafter. In fact, keeping themselves busy and occupied helped them cope and live with their disease.
7. Storm the heavens. Pray unceasingly to whomever Higher Being your religion acknowledges. Even in silence, God knows the desires of your heart. I fully respect novenas though I’m not the type who can complete one. Somewhere along the way, I developed my own way of praying, one that may be likened to a dialogue with a friend. Pray as if everything depends on it. Ask people for prayers as well. Even doctors will not say no to divine intervention.
8. Remain positive and hopeful. Faith and hope are the two things that one should hold on to in any kind of trial. No one can take that away from you.

Lessons Learned and Love Endured During My Cancer
by Jerry S. Lopez (September 30, 1964 to May 15, 2005)

  1. Coping and grieving is a personal choice and no one else’s.
  2. It takes a strong person to face the illness, but an extra ordinary strength and grace from God is necessary to accept its fate.
  3. Decisions made are between husbands and wives, no one else’s. Explanations are not necessary.
  4. God sees everything and that’s what really matters.
  5. Wish people well even if they do not appreciate you. Forgiveness and love are always the order of the day.
  6. Children are a great source of joy, strength, and inspiration. In the final analysis, how we respond to this illness as well to the loss will be their foundation of coping.
  7. Preparing for the uncertain or inevitable is acceptable even if you are not sick. Putting order in one’s life should matter at any given point.
  8. Being normal (even with a lot of effort) is possible even in the most abnormal situation.
  9. Love is an act of will and should not be “subject to conditions.”
  10. Assume the role of a suffering wife but never look the part.
  11. Blessings will come even in the most unfortunate circumstances. Angels are present everywhere.

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