When cancer invades, life must still go on

The Baltimore Sun

Like many other Americans lately, I've found myself thinking hard about - and personally identifying with - the dilemma faced by Elizabeth Edwards and her husband, John, the former senator running for president.

His career, her health. Not an easy balancing act. Who should sacrifice for whom? How much? And when - as soon as bad news hits, or later, if things get really bad? What counts as a sacrifice, anyway? Nobody wants to be - or live with - a martyr. But nobody wants to deal with or watch a loved one deal with cancer unsupported, either. Ultimately, everybody's mental health counts - the sick partner's, the healthy one's and the kids'.

For 11 years, my husband, Tom, and I grappled with this balancing act, first because of his lymphoma, and for the past five or six years, because of his prostate cancer as well. We knew, of course, that there were millions of other couples in similar situations, but that didn't help much. We had to juggle each other's needs - and each make sense of our own - with every up and down of the cancer roller coaster.

He had a need, which was sometimes tough for me, to minimize things, and to remain fiercely independent. I was more emotional.

He wanted to go through his first chemotherapy infusions alone, reading his physics journals and his newspapers. I wanted to be there. That's what "good" wives did. But this particular man felt my particular presence would overly dramatize things. He could do better, he felt, pretending that he was just sitting there reading, as usual, even while powerful drugs dripped into his arm. So I let him do it. I developed a kind of rule; we worked as a team, but he was the patient, so on big decisions, he got two votes and I got one. Once, though, because he had seemed more anxious than usual before an infusion, I showed up at the hospital uninvited. That time, we were both glad I did.

Like Elizabeth Edwards, Tom, who died last year, was amazingly generous in encouraging me to keep up my own life, almost to the very end, when I did drop everything. So, for year after uncertain year, he would tell me to keep working, keep swimming, keep singing with my singing group, keep going to my book group, keep going to see my grandkids.

All of which I did, with some guilt, but also, to be honest, with considerable relief. Unlike Tom, I had the luxury of getting away from cancer once in a while, and I like to think it helped us both that I did.

Still, I asked him over and over how, given his situation, he could be so generous. I didn't think I would be. But, perhaps like Elizabeth Edwards, Tom didn't seem to see it as generosity. He saw it as protecting his best asset - me - from despair and burnout.

I never did burn out, but I did despair. We spent hours over the years talking, and crying, about Tom's fears and sadness and my dread of losing him. I always felt selfish and weak when he sympathized with my fear of life without him. But he kept telling me that, precisely because of that, I had the tougher job. I'm not sure whether that's correct, but his acknowledgment of how tough it was for me helped.

When I first read of the Edwardses' decision to stay in the presidential race, I was horrified. I thought he was being utterly selfish, that they were painting an overly optimistic view of her prognosis and that he should drop out now and focus on being her husband.

But then I thought about her, and Tom. From Tom's example, I could believe that, from the bottom of her soul, she would not want him to give up his (and their) dream, would not want to take on the "sick role" any sooner than necessary, would not want to be a burden. I think she is absolutely right to urge him to keep running. I'm less sure whether he's right to accept.

Unlike Tom and me, the Edwards' case involves the rest of the country, or could. Maybe, with a different set of talents, I could have run the country while still being there for Tom for most of the years of his cancer and treatment. After all, cancer is a chronic disease until it becomes a fatal one, and, as we discovered, it's quite possible to have many good, relatively disease-free times for many years.

On the other hand, cancer is nothing if not a crapshoot. You never quite know how pessimistic or optimistic to be. You never quite know which doctors are giving it to you straight, or who's right about the statistics and the studies and the chances.

So you do your best, individually and together. And you never really know whether you did it "right."

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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