Week 18: Cancer in the time of COVID

July 28, 2020

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Richard’s in the hospital again this afternoon, and honestly, it’s hard to think about anything else.

Richard is my mom’s boyfriend of 15 years. They met in 2004, and shortly after became bridge partners. He was a retired school teacher, a widower with no children of his own. She was a retired real estate agent, with two grown children and four grandchildren (now five — hello, Elle!). She was also still married to my dad — but as I can attest, it wasn’t going very well. She left my dad in October, and six months later, started dating Richard.

Given the history here, I was predisposed not to like her new paramour. But he turned out to be so likable — kind and friendly, easy-going, and difficult to rattle. My mom can run high-strung and stressed out; in him she found a partner who not only refuses to rise her level of anxiety, but who actually calms her down. “Now, Kris,” he often says, “that’s not a big a deal.” And pretty much always, it turns out it’s not.

(No worries about my father. My mother formally moved out in the morning, and he went on his first J-Date that evening. Two dates a day on the weekdays and three dates a day on the weekend, for two months straight, until he met Joyce in December. This past February, they celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.)

Richard turns out to have two obsessions: bridge and politics. I don’t know too much about his bridge side, though my mother tells me he’s a great player. But I’m well acquainted with his political fixation. At 81 years old, he’s an old-school Democrat (think Biden, pre-pandemic). A measure of his intensity is that I did not notice a particular uptick in his news diet when Trump got elected. The way we’ve all become attuned to every twist and turn of the D.C. drama? That’s how he was about the Iraq War when I met him, and it hasn’t waned since.

But I don’t know if he’s been tracking the details of the Republicans’ latest coronavirus relief bill, or that Trump just claimed that much of the country is “corona free.” He may be too busy fighting to breathe.

A few years ago, Richard did a preventative scan, and to everyone’s surprise, they found cancer in one kidney. So they went in and took out the kidney and honestly, I barely even noticed there’d been a surgery. He just went on as before, as though nothing much had happened. Two or three years passed, and cancer turned up again, in an adrenal gland. Another surgery, another excision, another shrug, and he was back to his life of politics tracking, bridge with my mom, travel with my mom (sometimes bridge and travel together, when they went on bridge cruises) and walking their rescue dog, Sadie.

Then, in January, his back hurt badly enough that he had my mom take him to the ER. I’m picturing excruciating pain, because nothing less seems to catch his attention. It turned out the kidney cancer had metastasized to his spine and his lungs. That was a bad day, and the days have not gotten appreciably better since then.

There’s been immunotherapy. There’s been the side effects of immunotherapy. There’ve been scans and blood work and more scans. Earlier this month, there was a week in the hospital, followed by about 10 days in rehab, where they tried to increase his weight and strength. Then this morning, he could hardly breath. My mom drove him back to UCLA, where’s he supposed to spend the night. When he comes home tomorrow, it will be with a tank of oxygen.

There’s the hope that the oxygen will make it easier for him to breathe, and give him back some ease in his days. There’s the hope that the treatment the oncologist plans to start on Friday will be the magic bullet we’ve been seeking for the last six months.

Hope feels narrower and more tenuous each day, but — maybe — there’s enough still to clutch onto and try to hold fast.

What’s certain is that this is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch Richard suffer. It’s also hard to watch my mom struggle with his illness. She doesn’t whine and she’s been remarkably composed through these last few months. But Richard has made her happier than I’ve ever seen her in my life, and so I’m not surprised that this has been a brutal journey for her, too.

I’m not sure how to end this post. Sunshine does break through cloudy skies, right? Well, we’re all waiting on the sun.

Day 52: Health

May 18, 2020

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

I’ve decided to try to write about good things and gratitude this week, because frankly, the pall over this time is real, and living in shadows is a tough existence.

So. A bit of sunshine.

Today, I’m grateful for health. I’m grateful that my health is getting better. A nap a day seems to keep the fatigue at bay.

But more than that, I’m grateful that my husband is healthy, because back in March, when this whole thing started, I was so scared he wouldn’t be. Bill is an internist who mostly sees patients in clinic, but sometimes does weeks in the hospital. Today, actually, is his last day of seven in a row on hospital service. In these last couple of months, he’s treated patients who he feared had the coronavirus — and thankfully, they didn’t. He’s also worn a surgical mask (instead of an N-95) to treat a non-COVID patient who later turned out to have the disease. It’s been such a roller coaster.

I was also worried I would give him the virus. But, nothing.

About once a year, Bill gets the flu, and it can be a pretty violent affair — for 24 hours, he retreats to bed and can barely move. Then he’s up, and it’s over, and he returns to work. This year, that happened in January. I don’t think it was the coronavirus because I got that bug after him (as I’ve mentioned before, I get everything), and it did not feel anything like what felled me in March. It felt, basically, like the flu.

I worried that, for Bill, COVID-19 would be the flu on steroids. But so far, it’s been more like one of the colds that whip through our house from time to time: knocking me sideways, inconveniencing a kid or two, slipping right past my husband without so much as a sniffle.

I’m also grateful for the health of my parents and their partners. It’s not clear at this point if my father’s stroke last month was caused by a heart arrhythmia or by the coronavirus. He’s tested negative for the virus and the antibody test failed to come up with anything, but his constellation of symptoms was so strange that even his doctor has floated the possibility. In any case, he’s well again, as is his wife, Joyce, and for that I’m thankful.

My mother’s boyfriend, Richard, continues to recover, which in itself feels like a miracle, because he’s spent the entirety of 2020 so far quite ill from metastatic kidney cancer. But every time we see him these days, he stands a little straighter and his color’s a little brighter. My mom has stayed healthy, though the effort of nearly cutting herself off from the world leaves her quite bored.

My in-laws in upstate New York are healthy. My brother, and my husband’s brother, and their families are healthy. So are my kids. So is my extended family. So are my friends. At least, as far as I know.

I’ve never thought so much about illness at a time when I’m surrounded by such an abundance of good, even robust health.

The virus has, for the most part, treated my world gently. I pray it continues that way, for me and for you.

Sunday interview: Ashley

April 26, 2020

Photo by Natalia Sobolivska on Unsplash

Note: This is a true story, but names have been changed to preserve the subjects’ privacy

Ten months ago, a cancer diagnosis transformed the lives of Ashley and her family. They learned that Karenna, then 11 years old and the youngest of their four girls, had an advanced case of bone cancer.

Since then, Ashley and her daughter have driven 30 miles, from their home in the western suburbs of Los Angeles, to UCLA every other week for five straight days of chemo treatment, followed by nine days of recovery. Long before the coronavirus drove America out of the workplace, Ashley put her career as a landscape designer on hold to tend to her daughter, whose condition requires round-the-clock care. The two of them have also been basically on lockdown, since Karenna’s immune system is so fragile.

Then, in March, the pandemic hit. Soon, the rest of the world – plus the rest of their family – joined them in unexpected quarantine.

Ashley:  Cancer comes with many questions. Now you have COVID, which is very similar, in terms of how do you get it? Could be this way, could be that way. How long does it last? How does it manifest in each person? Cancer is the same way. How long is treatment? When will this be over? When will we know that it’s not going to come back? So it was like, is there yet another thing now that we have to worry about? 

In the very beginning, I was in a state of complete – I mean, you go from this busy life, lots of distractions, very busy work, everyone’s got their full schedule, and then you find out one day your kid has cancer.

Since I’ve now surrendered to cancer, it was easier for me to surrender to COVID. I wasn’t working any more. I had no social life that wasn’t phone calls or walks.

Her doctor at UCLA told us, “I really doubt Karenna’s going to get this (based the way scientists believe the virus interacts with the body, and evidence from Italy and New York City).” He’s more worried about me getting it, or (her husband) Charles getting it. Karenna can’t bear the thought of me getting sick.

For instance, if I was to have a fever, she would have to get chemo alone. Now, anyone 13 or older is getting chemo alone. The kids are sitting there bawling behind other curtains in the chemo clinic. One parent is allowed, but if that one parent is sick, the kid has to get it alone, which is super-traumatic.

Also, Karenna had planned this big trip post-chemo, which was supposed to be in June – she wanted to go to Italy. Now we can’t go anywhere for God knows how long.

But you know what? As awful as it has been, there has been so much beauty. The amount of support! There was this woman who organized 75 people in our neighborhood to bring Karenna a gift every single day. Every single morning there’s a beautiful wrapped gift outside our door. And we don’t even know these people. It’s all anonymous. 

There’s something really beautiful about community and the simplicity of our family now.  I never played Monopoly with the girls their entire childhoods, and we played Monopoly. Before, we were always going in different directions. It was kind of a big deal after we played, because I thought, Wow, we never do anything like that.  The amount of family dinners we’ve had, cooking meals, sitting outside by the pool. We never cleared our schedules in 20 years. Now it’s like, what are we doing for breakfast? What are we doing for lunch? Elizabeth (the oldest girl) gets up and makes coffee for everyone. She takes orders. Anything that you would have gotten at any matcha bar. She’s trying to find boba. That’s all we don’t have.

I’ve always believed in God, but there’s something really different now. I’ve had to accept that I’m not really 100 percent in control. Things are going to happen and I’m going to have to roll with it.

I used to sit down every night and make my list and it was like, Okay, I’m going to get through this list tomorrow. Everything will be done on this list. There is no list anymore. And I don’t even care. I’m telling you I care about nothing anymore but health and family.

Now, with this pandemic, the entire world is worried about health. Every single person knows that health is at risk. There’s a unity.

This is a long-term quarantine, which is very much parallel to what we’ve experienced. It feels like saying, “Do you get what we’ve been going through?” and everyone in the world is like, “Yes!”