Columnist Will Cutlip’s family has experienced the loss of cancer more than once. His biggest lesson: show love to those you love
The summer before I entered the sixth grade, my mom called us all into the kitchen to give us some great news: Your father has a new job, and we’re moving to Detroit. Start packing, kids!
We all received the news differently. My sisters, Jan and Denise, who were two and four years older than I was, would be closer to all our girl cousins, so it was a great deal for them. My little brother, Dan, was just 6, so it didn’t mean anything to him.
But to me, this was the worst news I had ever heard.
We had been living in Grand Haven, Michigan, which to a 10-year-old boy was paradise. I had vast fields of sand to explore, wooded dunes and winding roads, our own little beach on Lake Michigan. Leave this? For Detroit? Are you kidding?
They weren’t kidding. But they weren’t being straight with us, either. We were not moving to Detroit because my dad had a new job. We were moving to Detroit because that’s where all the good oncology doctors were. My father had been diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, and he was fighting for his life.
They didn’t tell us that, though. Later, when we were settled in our new house and Dad started getting chemo and radiation, Mom just said, “He’s sick, leave him alone.” I met him at the door one day, and he was red and pale at the same time, sweating heavily and struggling to get up the five stairs to the house.
You okay, Dad?
“Just played 18 holes of golf,” he said. “Pretty hot out there today.”
Oh. How bad can it be if Dad is playing golf? I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Then, three days before Christmas, I was out behind my friend John’s house when my sister Jan showed up. You! Mom wants to talk to us! Now!
When we got there, Mom was upstairs on the big bed with my other sister Denise and Dan.
“I have something to tell you,” she said, but she couldn’t do it. Denise had to tell us: Dad has cancer, he is near death. “I prayed that he would die,” said Mom, but she broke down again. He was in a lot of pain, said Denise, and was not expected recover. We all wept.
Three days after Christmas, we got the call: Your father is dead. So sorry for your loss. He was 43.
And this is what I knew about cancer at the time: Cancer kills you. It’s terrible, and it’s painful, and people who love you pray to God that you’ll die soon. Scary stuff.
“We all learned a lot, we read up on cancer care and practice, what to look for, how to respond to various stages and so on. We had little hope, but we shared the conviction that it was better to fight than to give up.”
Early that next year, shortly after my father’s funeral, we lost my paternal grandfather to cancer. He was 62. Three months later, we lost my maternal grandfather, to cancer. He was 68.
One result of this series of events is that I stopped looking forward to the future. I didn’t plan for a career—why bother? Cancer will come for me before I’m 45, it’s all written, it’s all done. Enjoy your day, boy, because it all comes to a crashing halt.
Eventually I made it to college, got married, had a kid. But I never lost that sense that there was nothing to plan for. Then in 2005, I got a call from my sister Jan: We’ve bought you a ticket, come to Michigan quick. Mom has lung cancer.
By the time I got off the plane, we’d discovered it was also brain cancer, and late stage in both cases, and have you made arrangements yet?
Mom fought. She had saved herself a nice nest egg by that point and was able to sell her house, so there was something of a war chest there to work with. I started commuting to Detroit from Maine twice a month to help care for her. Times had changed since my father had the disease. We all learned a lot, we read up on cancer care and practice, what to look for, how to respond to various stages and so on. We had little hope, but we shared the conviction that it was better to fight than to give up.
Then the radiation started, and a lot of who mom was, was gone after that. She would respond to us—fight us when we tried to bathe her, swore at us like a sailor. It was a very tough time, but it brought us all closer, and we needed that, for one reason or another.
But she died. The last time I saw my mom alive was Mother’s Day 2006.
“I love you, mom,” I said, her chin in my hand. “Be a good girl, do what they tell you, okay?”
She smiled at me. And all the way home, I thought about how much I loved her. The morning after I got back to Maine, Jan called me to say that mom was dead.
“We were there with her,” she said, choking back tears. “She wasn’t alone, don’t worry.”
Well, I wasn’t there.
But I was there at the funeral, and I helped spread her ashes. And my God, was I ever afraid of cancer.
And it was not that many years later that my phone rang. It was late, and it was Jan, and Jan had some heavy news for me: Our eldest sister Denise had been diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, both lungs, Stage 4.
“The most optimistic doctor says she’s got about 10 months,” she sobbed.
Another day, another plane, another sad meeting with the family. We started planning her funeral, Jan and I, in the car from the airport. But then Jan shook her head.
“Let’s not think that way, okay?”
I will not pretend that everything changed that day because of this, but some things definitely had changed. We had been there before, and had at least learned to look over the shoulders of the doctors and nurses in the course of their duties. And boy, did that ever pay off. Five months into her treatment, Denise started to get intense pains in her upper spine. That’s it, she figured, the cancer has spread to my bones, I’m a goner. Jan and my cousin Deb took her to the ER, and the ER staff ordered up pain meds immediately.
But the meds never got there, so they reordered pain medication—which also failed to arrive. Denise was in panic, free-falling. That alone could have killed her that day.
Whereupon my cousin Deb, a nurse with loads of hospital experience, took my sister’s chart out of the nurse’s hand, gave it a quick glance, and said, See this? Denise’s doctor had heard of her arrival and had checked her into a room on the fifth floor. And that was where the meds were going.
“The last time I saw my mom alive was Mother’s Day 2006. ‘I love you, mom,’ I said, her chin in my hand. ‘Be a good girl, do what they tell you, okay?’”
We caught another break, in that both masses were located in the front of her lungs, which meant they could really lean on the radiation without hitting any of her other organs.
That was almost eight years ago now.
These days, my sister Denise spends most of her time advocating for lung cancer victims and often travels to Washington, D.C. to take part in educational programs and to encourage cancer patients hither and yon. She loves this role, this big-sister thing she does, that has now brought comfort to so many lives. Two years into this new life, Denise was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Heavy news, right? According to Jan, Denise’s response was, “Really? Okay, we got that.” And she beat it, too.
That was two years ago. Last week, I received a call from Jan. It was late, as usual, and I didn’t really have to ask, but she told me anyway: Denise has a new nodule on her left lung that they’re worried about. Jan sounded concerned, but she didn’t seem upset.
I called Denise and asked if I should come out.
“What?,” she said. “Oh, no. I mean, please do. But I’m okay, don’t worry.”
“Look,” she said. “At the end of the day, the cancer’s gonna do what the cancer’s gonna do. There’s nothing I can do to control that. I know better. You know, people tell me, ‘Eat this, eat that,’ but I know people who ate that, and I know people who didn’t eat that, and they got cancer. And I know people who never smoked and they’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer by the time they’re 9 years old. And what I know now is that the cancer’s going to do what the cancer’s going to do, and all I can control is my reaction to it. And I prefer to not think about it.”
So we talked about the weather a little, our cousin Barb’s broken leg (poor thing!), about the Tigers’ chances this year.
But the conversation made me think of a story I heard in church a while ago. There was an evangelist who famously told a story about waking up in his bed to find that the devil himself was standing in his room, the embodiment of all hatred, death and evil. And as soon as the evangelist realized who it was, he just said, “Oh, it’s you.” And then he just rolled over and went back to sleep.
So, yeah, cancer: Deadly, yes, even scary, if you let it be. But cancer is just a disease, and diseases can be managed. We got this.
Meanwhile, show love to the ones you love, and just keep on keeping on. It’s all you were going to do anyway.
Will Cutlip lives and writes in Brunswick.