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Cancer breaks all the rules

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I hate losing. I hate it when I lose my keys, lose my way, or lose my train of thought. I have spent my life trying to learn the rules of every game that I played in an effort to ensure that I was always prepared and that I had everything that I needed to be victorious. The game always made sense to me when I knew the rules. I respected the boundaries and I fought hard. I am not accustomed to or comfortable with losing, and that is why I am having a difficult time.

Earlier this year, my dear sweet mother-in-law passed away, less than three months after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized from her lungs to two places in her brain. When we were first told that she was sick, I kept telling myself that times had changed, medicine had gotten better, and the field of medicine had been revolutionized, but, in so many ways, it has not. There is no cure for terminal cancer, and there is nothing worse than having a doctor tell you that there is nothing that can be done to cure you or a loved one. Nothing. At all. My mother-in-law, Florence Whitehead Huzzey, went from being a robust and vibrant person to being on complete bed rest in less than a month. She went through six weeks of radiation to the brain, and because of it, her body was acting like she had had a stroke, so her left side stopped working. In so many ways, so did we.

When someone you love gets diagnosed with a terminal disease, your life as you know it stops working. You lose touch, and you lose track of time. The days slip by, and though you are going to work or to school, you are not fully present anywhere. It is as if the universe demands everything you have to give and makes you focus all of your attention and energy on trying to keep your loved one alive. I could feel myself almost trying to will her back to good health.

Cancer became real to me, and it was everywhere. I would hold conversations with cancer and demand that it answer my questions about what I could do to force it to leave mother-in-law alone. I got angry at cancer. I fussed at it, ignored it and apologized to it. In my mind, cancer was like a spider that had caught my mother-in-law in a web, and everyone who was connected to her was caught as well.

There were days when I convinced myself that we were winning and days when I knew that we were not. Her cancer was aggressive and mean and relentless. It was smart and was always about two steps in front of us. It was playing a game that had no rules. When we attempted to fight the cancer in the lungs, it moved to the brain, and when we went after the cancer in the brain, it moved to the lower gastrointestinal tract. I remember the day we found out that it had moved from the lower gastrointestinal tract up to the trachea; this was the day when I realized that we were fighting a battle that we would not win.

By that time, my mother-in-law had not walked in a month, had not smiled or laughed or spoken to me in two months, and I had not exhaled in close to three. I was walking around in a semi-comatose state just waiting for the next thing, to hear the next place where cancer had taken up residence or the next remedy that the doctors wanted to try. I was a weary traveler.

Although my mother in law stopped smoking almost 30 years ago, her cells' DNA had been permanently altered. When she first became sick with recurrent bronchitis, the doctors, even though they knew her history, did not order a low dose CT scan. We are encouraged to get mammograms at an early age if breast cancer runs in our family or early prostate checks if prostate cancer runs in our family, but former smokers are not typically screened for lung cancer. Even though it is the second most common cancer, it is one of the few cancers that is rarely detected in the early stages. Unfortunately, the 5-year survival rate for all stages of lung cancer is about 16 percent. I do not know if an early screening would have saved my mother-in-law, but when I think about her smile, her spirit, her laughter and our loss, I wish we would have at least tried.

Kaye Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland. Her website is http://www.kayewisewhitehead.com, and her email is kewhitehead@loyola.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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