Wide Awake: Cancer Changes
The hardest lessons you don’t want to learn

Whenever I hear someone tell me they – or a family member – have cancer, I think oh, you’re about to live through some really difficult times. I know that if all goes well, they’ll come out the other side stronger, but changed. I guess if all doesn’t go well, that happens too. It just has heartbreak along with it.

I know this firsthand from my dad’s cancer battle, which he lost 10 years ago. That sounds like such a long time, and yet it feels like it just happened. I can still remember key moments from that time, like how difficult his treatment was and how all-consuming his care and hospital stays were.

I wrote down some of the things I learned or maybe just noticed through my dad’s battle. (I don’t call it a journey. I don’t see it that way.) I know many of you will understand my notes, and I’m sorry for that. These were life experiences I could do without, because the first thing I learned is: Cancer changes everything.

Cancer takes on a life of its own. It becomes an entity that everyone joins to fight against. It’s invisible and powerful, so even when you think things are going well, you sometimes find out they really aren’t – and the cancer is beating you.

Cancer causes pain. It can make your bones so weak that a cough breaks a rib. Or it can build tumors on your spine that make walking unbearable.

Cancer makes you aware of all there is to miss: weddings, births, vacations, books, rainstorms, dinners with friends, long conversations, art, shopping, snow, hot sand, advances in technology, changes in the world, barbecues, feelings of pride, love, happiness – the list is endless.

Cancer makes you see – and love – the simplest pleasures. There was one hospital stay my dad had that was over a month. I remember leaving the hospital one crisp fall afternoon when the sun was shining. There was a refreshing chill in the air. I felt the coolness hit my cheeks, and I ached for my dad to feel that. He had been confined within walls for so long. He needed to feel that air, because it felt like life. Something I have come to love is how refreshing the outside air is. I actually am very aware of it when I’m outside. I think that all began on that fall afternoon.

Cancer breaks your heart.

Cancer treatment makes you very sick. And the kicker is, you know you’re going to do this again…and again.

Cancer units in hospitals aren’t sad places. We watched patients hold their IV poles while they walked the halls for exercise. One young patient – somewhere in his 20s – walked backwards to get the most of his workout.

Oncology nurses are remarkable. They alleviate pain, check on eating habits and dispense medications at specified intervals. They answer questions, or they get the answer from the doctor who was just in but didn’t give a clear answer. They smile, and speak kindly. They make it clear they care about this one patient, and you can count on them to help.

Cancer patients are treated differently in an ER. Since the staff there is so focused on quick remedies to save lives, cancer – especially if it is advanced – throws them a curve ball. Where oncologists specialize in prolonging lives and improving the quality of lives, the job of the ER physician is different. They want to make people better, even if it’s just temporarily, and move them to the next level of care. It’s not that easy with a cancer patient.

Cancer affects lots and lots of people, each with a story to tell: Some of survivorship, some of loss. But each speaks of a despicable battle they never wanted to fight. But they fight anyway, because another thing I know to be true: Cancer patients want to live.

To learn how advancements are helping cancer patients live longer, see Living with Cancer.

April 2022
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