DO CANCER PATIENTS KNOW BEFORE THEY’RE EVEN DIAGNOSED?

I’ve wondered off and on about this possibility ever since John was diagnosed, but hadn’t really given it a thought– until yesterday. In searching for my passport, I came across John’s and was very surprised at my reaction to seeing that photo of him.

This had nothing at all to do with wifely sadness at unexpectedly finding a photo of my beloved husband. It was his eyes.  They had the same haunted, far-away look that I remember so well after his emergency colostomy and subsequent diagnosis of cancer. One of his best friends (himself a survivor of a triple-bypass heart surgery) described it with amazing succinct-ness upon seeing John several days after he was released from the hospital:

“You look like the guy who just saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”

So, when I unexpectedly came upon this passport photo and remembered that look (and the deep sadness that it engendered as I thought how this must be for him), I immediately concluded that the photo must have been taken sometime soon after he was diagnosed. A check of the date the passport was issued was also illuminating in a most unexpected way: I really could not remember whether he was diagnosed in 2004 or 2005 (!!) Ah, perhaps it is true about how the passage of time heals painful memories…

To my great surprise again, my notes informed me that the passport photo was taken 7 months BEFORE John’s emergency surgery, thus providing the answer to the seemingly rhetorical question posed in the title of this post. In John’s case, after seeing his eyes in that photo, the answer is a definitive “Yes.” The bright light of insight illuminated all of my previous musings in  an instant.

He DID know, in some deep way that he was unable to accept or articulate. He swore so many times in the four years that followed his diagnosis that he never had any of the possible warning signs: no blood in the stool, no changes in bowel habits, no unexplained aches or pains, no digestive issues…

And yet, as I often commented to friends, he was like a man possessed. We had just sold our residence of many years and bought a piece of raw land on another island where we were planning to build the home that we planned to live in for the rest of our lives. So there was a lot going on. But John was a general contractor and had built many homes for us and for others in the past. He was an old hand at this, and was delegating most of the hard labor to a young and energetic crew.

He had always been legendary for the speed with which he completed building projects– but his behavior was light years beyond that focus now. He set deadlines for various construction milestones that even those who knew him well deemed impossible to meet. None of them were missed by more than one day, and several were met before even his own wildly optimistic prognostications.

So the fact that he had lost a significant amount of weight was easily explained by his hyper-kinetic activity. His weight had been slowly but steadily increasing up until the beginning of this project, so we took the weight loss to be a good thing. His sometimes devastating obsession with “getting things done”  and the oppressive level of anger that accompanied it was decidedly not  a good thing. I was often baffled and confused– and hurt. There was no discussing any of this with him.

Looking back, I really think– almost know, after seeing this photo– that he did know that something was very wrong inside his body. But he had no coping mechanism for dealing with this utterly unwanted possibility. He had spent his whole life successfully convincing himself that he was invincible, immune to decay and death. Hence, all the seemingly inexplicable anger– directed outward, but engendered by a body that had suddenly betrayed him. He was face-to-face with his worst fears, and facing the impossibility of living the life for which he had so carefully planned.

In a very strange way, I found solace in this old passport photo. Everything is illuminated (the title of a very obscure favorite foreign film). Everything makes sense. There is something awe-inspiring in this revelation, that we humans can have this kind of deep knowing– and comforting for me, in that John came to understand that all that occurred was not a curse, but a paradoxically precious gift to him: the gift of time. He, who never wanted to linger in a state of illness or incapacity, was ultimately so very grateful to have had the gift of those last four years in which to savor and complete every aspect of his life and to die in utter peace, with no regrets.

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About surfingon

I live in Hawaii. I surf in the winter and swim in the summer. I have been a hospice volunteer with a contemplative-care oriented hospice for 25 years have been part of their team that trains new volunteers for the last 9 years. I have walked the colon cancer path with my beloved husband these past 5 years. He died very peacefully in April 2009. I now seek to share what we learned, to shed light on the many dark corners of this often mystifying, heartbreaking and heart-opening journey.
This entry was posted in caregiver to cancer patient, end of life, widow and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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