Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Parenthood and the cancer diagnosis

Lately, every time I sit down to watch the NBC show, Parenthood, I am in tears by the end of the episode. And, it’s not just a girly hormonal thing.

Generally speaking, I enjoy the show because they incorporate a lot of relevant topics, weaving them throughout their episodes. Things like: adoption, military/PTSD, Asperger Syndrome, and the larger concept of family.

Their recent story line with Kristina getting breast cancer has touched me. Deeply.

As with most people, I have a family connection to cancer. I have seen loved ones pass away from the ravages of this disease, and it isn’t pretty. It’s never pretty.

I have dealt with my own husband getting a cancer diagnosis just before his 30th birthday.

It was the most difficult time of my life. That seems almost dumb to say because I wasn’t the one who had to deal with cancer – surgery, bone marrow biopsy, scans of all kinds, chemotherapy, radiation and more scans.

I cannot even imagine what Titan must have gone through in those moments by himself.

That’s what I was thinking of as I watched the last scene of the “Together” episode of Parenthood, when Adam was sitting with Kristina in the infusion room, holding her hand while her first round of chemotherapy was administered.

Image Source

I did not get the opportunity to be there with my husband as he went through the process, and it hurts me to this day. It was just not possible.

I wasn’t there when he got a terrible chemical burn when the chemo blew through his vein and destroyed the tissue inside his hand – which still bothers him to this day. I wasn’t there when they began diluting the chemo because of how much it burned going in, which took 2-3 times longer to administer. I wasn’t there when he felt immediately nauseous whenever he pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. I wasn’t there when he almost walked away from his last round of chemo because they couldn’t find a vein and he had to spend hours at 2 different hospitals just trying to get the IV set. I wasn’t there when he got the tattoos on his chest to calibrate the radiation machine. I wasn’t there because I couldn’t be.    

We didn’t have much help during that time. It was pretty much us against the world. I had to take care of my non-stop toddler and screaming baby during Titan’s treatment. It didn’t help that the kids and I were chronically sick the entire time he received chemo. We had one cold after another after another. Titan had to wear a surgical mask whenever he entered our house. For months. Even if I had been able to secure a babysitter to watch the boys while I went with Titan to the hospital, I couldn’t be there because I was a germy threat to each person that had a compromised immune system.

Titan after a round of chemotherapy - December 2005
It felt terrible knowing that I was stuck at home and my husband had to go through treatment completely alone. As his wife, it cut me to the core. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

At the time, Monkey was in the thick of the terrible two’s, which we later found out was autism. Prince Charming was only a few months old, and he didn’t sleep, had terrible reflux despite breastfeeding, and he cried all the time. Of course, now we know he had undiagnosed food allergies and autism.

Every single day was intensely challenging, and if I managed to get a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, I counted myself lucky. Dealing with Titan’s cancer in the middle of all of that was just one more layer of chaos to a life that already felt completely out of control.

I was trying to figure out how to parent my children, who both seemed like unsolvable puzzles. I was trying to care for my husband who still had to work and support us, and couldn’t really help me with the kids or the house. All I could do was educate myself about cancer and treatments. I felt that if I couldn’t be there in person to show my support and sit with him for the hours he had to be there, I could show support from home by learning as much as possible to help him.

During the course of my husband’s diagnosis, surgery and treatment, we made a conscious decision to not focus on being scared or sad, but to maintain a positive and proactive approach. We did not grieve the diagnosis or dwell on anything that could go wrong. We both knew that Titan had to stick around and that there were no other options, so we agreed on maintaining that attitude and asked God to help make our faith a reality.

When we sat in the room with the doctor and went over the results that showed the presence of cancer, we accepted the diagnosis with a smile and not tears. Our response was unsettling to the doctor, who scolded us for not taking things seriously.

It was then that I became educated.   

Up to that point, I was staunchly mainstream with all of my ideas about medicine, food, and doctors. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. And, that is when it all changed for me.  

I learned the difference between vegetarian, vegan and raw. I learned what a naturopath does. I learned that there are stores dedicated only to supplements, vitamins and nutrition. I learned about acid-alkaline balance. I learned that charities like the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen are not all they’re cracked up to be. I learned that there is a difference between juice you buy at the grocery store and juice you make at home with a fancy machine.

I learned so many things!

I tried to use this knowledge for my husband’s benefit as he dealt with cancer. He lost 30 pounds, he lowered his cholesterol significantly without prescription medication, and he didn’t lose his hair as they promised us he would (although it did thin a bit). The doctors were extremely worried about his weight loss, and we were able to convince them that it was actually a sign of his good health because of the changes we had made to his diet and nutrition. We were trying to support his body so that he could better deal with the toxic effects of the chemotherapy.

It has been 7 years since he received his diagnosis.   

One thing is for sure: everything we learned about cancer has helped us with autism. Everything.

For that, I am thankful for the experience, despite how difficult it was. My eyes may not have been as open had my husband not had cancer. I probably would have never considered anything “alternative,” like the GFCF diet that unlocked speech for Prince Charming.

My boys are better off now because my husband had cancer. That is a completely bizarre thought, but it’s true.

I wish I could have been there for my husband in the ways I had hoped to as his wife, but our life just didn’t allow for it at the time. I think any wife and wannabe super mom always hopes to do it all, and it’s hard when reality doesn’t allow you to even try. I know that I can’t change what happened and that Titan understood, but I still wish I could have done more. There is still a lot of pain and pangs of guilt over that, which all came flooding back when I watched Parenthood.

Now that we are so far removed from the diagnosis and treatment, I can allow myself to feel those feelings. A little bit of distance from it helps me realize how remarkable the whole thing was, and how well we did in the circumstances.

It feels like an eternity has passed, yet when watching the show, it’s like it was just yesterday. I guess as long as the cancer storyline continues on Parenthood, I’ll get a little bit of therapy one episode at a time.      

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