Families Facing Cancer: Coping with the problems and possibilities together
Our family's comfortable world was shattered.
Posted Mar 18, 2010
It is still dark with just a hint of light in the Eastern sky. But the full moon gives the snow cover in our back yard a ghostly glow. I have the gift of a quiet Sunday morning at home to write to you and introduce myself and my family.
Before May, 2005, we were a relatively normal family, very close and mostly happy. We were immersed in planning our lives. Then, on May 1, I woke up with a searing pain in my shoulder. Within a week I was hospitalized with extremely advanced Stage 4, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was given less than a 25 percent chance of surviving. Our family's comfortable world was shattered. The challenges were overwhelming for each of us separately and for us as a family. How would we come together and encourage each other, while simultaneously needing so much support ourselves? How would the three of them cope when I died?
In the midst of my my illness and chemotherapy, I asked my family to join me in writing about our experience together. I felt it would be a way to share the depth of our feelings and go through my illness together no matter what the ultimate outcome. I also joined a cancer support group and began to learn more about how other families cope. Although, my wife and I have had thirty years each of clinical experience dealing with families in crisis, nothing truly prepared as for what went through when I was suddenly the patient.
Unlike so many other cancer patients, I have been very fortunate to go into remission. And a fairly common feeling on the part of all of us who have been lucky enough to be undeservedly spared, is the wish to pay it forward; to do something for others to express our gratitude. We decided to turn our writing into a book, Home Before Dark, A Family Portrait of Cancer and Healing, Union Sq. Press, 2010. We hope to share with other families how we worked it out; how we managed to stay close despite our individual differences in life-stages, understanding, and coping styles. We also depicted the ways specific relationships, husband-wife, father-son, brother-brother, can support (and occasionally undermine) the family as a whole.
It's been four and a half years since I was diagnosed, the book's coming out, and I am still here. It's actually taken a long time for all of us to truly believe in my recovery and regain our balance emotionally. I have survived but I also have changed. I feel much older, more vulnerable, less resilient. Having spent 40 years being a therapist and care taker of others, sometimes I feel more overwhelmed by the suffering of my clients, friends and family members than I used to be. I feel humbled by my brush with mortality. So I have not returned easily to the normal ups and downs of my former life. It's different now.
As we face the predictable difficulties of everyday existence, we frequently say to ourselves and each other, "Hey, at least it's not cancer." We are trying our best to live as they say in A.A. with an attitude of gratitude.
In the weeks to come, I will be sharing with you more about our family experience of coping with my illness, how we've changed, what we've learned, what we've gained, and what we've lost.
The sun's up. The paper is here. Time to bring some coffee to my dear Kate.
Time to bow my head and murmur my thanks. It's good to be here. It's good to be writing to you.