On August 24, 2012, Lynda and I together received her diagnosis of female non-smoker’s lung cancer which had already metastasized to her brain. This was on a Friday. Her primary care physician had called her at school earlier in the day and said, “Please get your husband and come in right now.” When we heard that, we knew we wouldn’t get a good word regarding Lynda’s persistent cough that the doctor had been treating.
That next week we met new pulmonologists and on September 7, 2012 we joined forces with Dr. Hamilton Williams a radiation oncologist at Northside Hospital. With him, we mapped out a 14-day radiation plan for the brain cancer and selected Lynda’s primary oncologist from a recommended list of four doctors. Together we chose Dr. Kelly May.
On that first visit with Dr. Williams, I acted like many loved ones of new cancer patients (or new cancer patients themselves) and I asked him: “Can you tell us how much time she has left?”
Dr. Williams thoughtfully rubbed his jaw, and turned his eyes on me. “Your wife, sir,” he said, “has started writing a new book which we call the rest of her life. She’s just beginning the first chapter. So I’d suggest giving her the time and space she needs to continue. That question is very premature. Understand?”
I’d never had a doctor talk to me in that manner. He put me in my place. But I needed to be put in my place!
Little did we know that the combined treatments with several doctors would last the next 16 months.
In July 2013, Lynda received a very bad report from a PET scan she had just taken. The bone cancers were “too numerous to count” the reporting radiologist noted. When we met with Dr. May to hear the report from the scan, Lynda herself turned to Dr. May and said “Can you please give me you idea on how much time I have left?”
Dr. May’s response: “Well, we would call your cancer a stage 4 cancer and I would think maybe about 6 months.” Lynda died just under six months later.
Today’s mail brought a letter from my cousin Bonnie Buckner who lives in Nashville. (By the way, she’s not related to me through the Buckner’s but through my dad’s mother’s family—the Son family. Her grandmother and my great-grandfather were brother and sister…but that’s the stuff for another blog.)
Included in Bonnie’s letter was one page from the January 26, 2014 New York Times—an article penned by Dr. Paul Kalanithi—a chief resident in neurological surgery at Stanford University. Dr. Kalanithi is 36 and has been recently diagnosed with lung and spine cancer. I would recommend his brief article to anyone. You can get it by clicking here.
His own experiences, closely parallel those that Lynda and I had. Dr. Kalanithi writes:
I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one [figuring out the odds or the probability that one has]. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live….I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, [and I ] learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seeming impassable sea of uncertainty parted: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Thanks Bonnie…and Dr. Kalanathi…and Dr. May…and Dr. Williams…and Samuel Beckett.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”