Sunday, September 21, 2008

Putting Illness in its Place: Betty & Peter's Story of Pancreatic Cancer

Couples dealing with illness understand too well how illness turns a relationship of equals into one of patient and caretaker. Autonomy slides into dependency; activity is regulated not by interest but by stamina, and time gets measured by intervals between medication doses.

Illness gets triangulated into the relationship. The intimate dyad becomes an unwelcome menage a trois in which illness winds up as the master.

Betty was magnetic. Her deep green eyes and glossy black hair made you want to move in close for a better look. Her smile made you want to be her friend. When she told her wonderful stories about life, spirit, and nature you felt as if she were taking you for a ride to a place that was familiar, but beyond where you could ever get to on your own. Betty lived large. She climbed mountains, swam lakes, sang like a diva, and when she listened to you, you felt as if you were part of something special.

Her husband Peter adored her. He loved sitting in a corner and watching her captivate a room of people. Peter was more private and analytic. His world was a place of numbers that usually tallied accurately and led to the expected conclusions. He was Betty's anchor. Betty was his magic.

Over the period of a few months, Betty, who was thin already, started losing weight. Her appetite diminished, and she began having stomach aches. Her clear eyes looked a little cloudy. After several visits to her primary care doctor and a few specialists, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Cancer soon became the dominant partner in their relationship. Chemotherapy became the organizing principle in their lives. Betty felt as if she had become a character in someone else's story and no longer told any of her own. Instead of reading biographies and books on finance, Peter dedicated his free time to researching pancreatic cancer. They stopped talking about dreams and horizons, and focused their attention on the size of her tumors and ways to mitigate the effects of chemo.

Their life was shrinking while, ironically and luckily, the treatments began to have a positive impact and doctors were offering her more time. Slowly Betty and Peter realized that their trajectory was not going to be a steady descent towards death. They were granted grace periods during which normalcy was possible. The problem was that they had constricted their imaginations and their hopes so much and had been submerged for so long in a world where normalcy was equivalent to pain and illness that they lost touch with how to live.

They began trying to reintroduce pleasure into their lives. One day, as they were driving along the back roads in rural Maine, they stopped for a picnic lunch by one of those astounding, pristine, hidden inland lakes. They noticed an abandoned log cabin on the shore and went to investigate. It was for sale, and they bought it.

The cabin emancipated them. The lake restored them. As they began transforming the cabin from a dilpadated shack into a rustic palace, they were transformed. Instead of monitoring tumor growth, they measured cabinet sizes and plotted out space for a garden.

I like to imagine Betty sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the front porch of the cabin. I can hear the squeaks her chair makes as she gently rocks. Her eyes are half closed. The reflection of the autumn sun bounces off the lake and steaks her raven black hair with blazes of fire.

How do you disentangle illness from the fabric of your relationship? How do you contain illness in its proper place, as intruder, and not as intimate partner? I think we all need to find our equivalent of the cabin by the lake.

Note: This story was inspired by a friend's experience, and thi s post is in honor of her journey . All identifiers have been changed.

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