Friday, August 8, 2008

When Illness Begets Illness: A Story About Breast Cancer

Five years ago Dave began experiencing headaches for the first time in his life. He attributed the headaches to increases in stress at work. Then he began slurring words and feeling low grade nausea. His doctor diagnosed a brain tumor. Janie, his wife, stayed by his side during the entire ordeal of surgery, chemotherapy, and, eventually recovery. They live "on alert," watching for signs of a recurrence.

Two years ago, Janie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, followed by several rounds of radiation. Her prognosis for recovery from this cancer is excellent.

However, her surgeon decided to do a largely unused form of reconstructive surgery. He took some muscles and tissue from her abdomen. Janie, a good patient, pleased with the cancer prognosis, did not research or ask questions about this method of reconstruction.

The newly fashioned breast looked good enough, but Janie was left with chronic abdominal pain. She began to take pain pills.

The story goes on.

The abdominal surgery soon resulted in a hernia, which required further surgery.

The hernia surgery, left behind a gnarled, twisted root system of scar tissue in her intestine.

Her pain is now intense, for most of the day, every day. She is chronically constipated and is now taking the last in the series of drugs available to help push waste through her constricted intestines. She has started having panic attacks. She sees that she is on a path that is heading towards a colostomy and can't tolerate the thought of undergoing more surgery.

This is the story of a couple delighted to have found each other after unhappy first marriages. For years they worked, jogged, played music, and raised a child. They remained loving and supportive through his brain cancer and her breast cancer. They still held hands and stroked each others' hair in the aftermath of her botched surgeries.

Hope has propelled them along. They are not in their 80s. They are not even in their 60s. They are in their late 50s. They had every right to expect health tranquility for another few decades. And when illness intruded, they had faith in doctors, in medicine, and in a bountiful trajectory of life that provides renewal for each incidence of sorrow, until the end.

But they have lived in their current hell for too long now. They see no path to renewal. Their love is strained and may not be able to offer them a solid bridge between panic attacks for much longer.

They have been each others' salvation for so long that they do not know how to take care of themselves as separate individuals. When the stress of illness is so severe and prolonged, it is critical that each partner put in place a support platform for him or herself. When being together pulls each partner down into a vortex of fear, depression, and uncertainty, each person needs to create a separate safety zone that can provide some nourishment. That zone can include friends, work, activities, therapy, meditation, time in the woods or by a river.

Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, partners have to stand alone in order to hold each other up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, partners have to stand alone in order to hold each other up"...touch my deep heart.full of meaning..