by Belle Piazza
I walked into the dry cleaner’s to pick up my husbands clean clothes the same way I have dozens of times over the past eight years. I greeted the owner the same as I always have, petted her little dog that loves to chase it’s ball and dumped my husbands dirty clothes on their counter. We exchanged our usual greetings and then she asked me if it would be all right if she asked me a question. “Of course” I said, having a good idea of what was coming.
I was on my way that afternoon to have my 5FU pump disconnected, wearing what I have come to refer to as a “chemo shirt” – a t-shirt with a low neckline so the nurses can easily access my port. The IV line was visible to anyone who saw me, including of course the owner of the dry cleaner.
As her eyes welled up just the slightest bit with tears, she asked me in her broken English, her family all being from Korea, “Is it better having lived?” – and then it was time for me to tear up. As I fought to hold back the tears, I simply told her “It’s really, really hard. It’s easier on my family because they still have me here, but it’s harder on me. For your husband, it was easier on him – having passed so quickly – but it’s harder on you.” “Thank you” she said. “That makes me feel better knowing that. I always wondered”.
I don’t know her name but I know her story. Her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago. He went through chemo and then surgery – and that’s as far as he got. He died in the hospital from complications following the surgery. I don’t know any further details other than the fact that his family was understandably, completely devastated. His surviving wife knows that I have colorectal cancer. I don’t advertise it, but when I lost my hair from Irinotecan it was kind of obvious something was going on. She asked about my hair and when I told her it was because of the chemo I was on, she shared with me that her husband had just been diagnosed with colon cancer and had started treatment.
As I follow my friends stories on Colon Talk, I can’t help but wonder who will go quickly and who will go slowly. Who will survive and move on with their lives and who will linger on, coming to The Colon Club for the help and support we have to offer them until it’s their time to go – forever. One of our members recently suffered a recurrence in his lungs despite aggressive treatment. He was angry and even mentioned it was all he could do to keep from eating a bullet, but wouldn’t because of his family. That comment hit me hard. Not because I was worried he’d kill himself, I didn’t get that feeling. What hit home was knowing how hard it is to live for years and years with this disease. Wanting to be alive, to live life, to spend more time with your family and friends – but knowing the price you pay to be living with cancer.
A former member of Colon Talk, Gaelen, put it aptly – “living with cancer is a marathon, not a sprint”. That about sums it up. You have to pace yourself. You have to accept what you can do and let what you can’t do go. Having parts of your life taken from you against your will and accepting this doesn’t come easily or quickly – but the sooner you can come to terms with the changes, the quicker you can go about enjoying those things that are still within reach. And of course this is a constantly changing scenario. As time goes on, cancer takes more and more and gives back little. Having lived with cancer for almost seven years, I feel like I’m a bit of an old pro at it. After awhile, it almost becomes a game. How much can I do and still have quality of life? How much can I trick the cancer into letting me do more without paying the price of fatigue, illness, blockages and pain? It’s an ongoing challenge. Some days I win, some days I don’t.
And so we carry on. Spending more precious time with those we love, doing the things we love. For every day I have on this earth, I think of it as one more for me, one less for cancer. I know that cancer will eventually win, but in the interim, I’m giving it a hell of a fight. I know I’m playing a good game.
When I left the dry cleaners that day I asked the owner if it was all right if I gave her a hug and she said yes. I held her and she cried just a little. She’s such a strong woman. She thanked me and said she had no one she could ask these questions of. I assured her she could ask me anything. She seemed to relax just a little and I saw gratitude in her eyes. I made it to the car before I completely fell apart. Yes, it’s easier on the patient when they go quickly. They are released from the pain and suffering of this world. But their families are left to grieve. For those of us who aren’t taken quickly, for whatever reason, we live on with our own challenges and pain. And each of us does our best to live with the cards we’ve been dealt, if for no other reason than to say take that cancer – I’m continuing to thrive despite whatever you throw at me.