Chris and I were in shock. Her neurosurgeon at Duke University Hospital had just told us that she had bone cancer, and that Chris likely had less than five years left to live, since there was a ninety percent five-year mortality rate from the type of bone cancer that she had, which was osteosarcoma.
Chris was sobbing and shaking with emotion. I tried to be strong for her, and tried (but failed) to hold back my own tears. After a few minutes, when the initial shock started to wear off, Chris asked the doctor how we were going to treat her cancer. He said that we already had appointments scheduled that same day with two oncologists on his team.
While we were trying desperately to understand what was happening, I briefly thought of my career, of Chris’s career, and how this would impact our livelihoods. How would we both stay gainfully employed and still get Chris through whatever treatments she would need to have? There was no way to answer that question at the moment, and so I returned my focus to Chris and trying to figure out how we would get through this new medical crisis.
We finished up our appointment with the neurosurgeon. Chris was walking very slowly with the help of a rolling walker, and even though it had only been a few dozen steps out to the hallway of the medical complex, Chris was already tired. We stopped to sit on a bench just outside the neurosurgeon’s office. As we sat there together, I put my arm around Chris and she started sobbing again. This time I let my own tears flow freely, too.
We felt as though we had just crossed into some new frontier, and there was no turning back. Chris no longer was just someone who had undergone three spinal surgeries. She was now a cancer patient.
Chris somehow summoned the physical and emotional strength needed to make it through the other medical consultations. After some discussion about her case, both of the oncologists agreed that there was no need for Chris to be treated at Duke, which is in Durham, NC. Instead, they told us that she could be treated in Charlotte, NC, where we lived.
We left the medical campus and drove to find a place to eat lunch. I don’t recall all of the details of the conversation that we had at lunch that day. To be honest, it felt like we were talking about someone else and not Chris. How could she have cancer? Of course, that was a rhetorical question, and there was no way to answer it. That’s one of the frustrating things about getting cancer: there is an incredible need (and not just a desire) to know why. Why Chris? Why would cancer strike at this time in her life? Chris was only forty years old, and in our minds, much too young to be facing a life-threatening illness.
Once we were back home in Charlotte, Chris collapsed from sheer exhaustion. It had taken a nearly Herculean effort for Chris to travel back and forth to Durham and to have all of those appointments. We were both mentally tired, too, emotionally spent from the day’s events.
The next day, we reached out to friends, to family, and to our employers to let them know what was going on with Chris - to let them know that she had bone cancer. We received a tremendous amount of encouragement and support, which helped to lift our spirits. In particular, our supervisors (Gene Hallacy at EMA and Barry Bale at OE) were incredibly understanding and showed great empathy. Both Gene and Barry told us that they would take care of everything in our absence, and both companies offered to do whatever they could to make our lives easier, just as they had always done. When Chris had begun her recovery at home after her three-week hospital stay at Duke, EMA (where I worked) had food delivered to us. OE (where Chris worked) had paid for housecleaning for a few months so that we wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the house clean while Chris continued her recovery.
Over the next several weeks, Chris continued her recovery, and in time she started walking without the aid of a walker, although she would still need the support of a cane for quite some time after that to help keep her steady on her feet. Her physical therapy was working, too, and we tried to be as active as we could outside within the limits of her stamina.
About a month later, after that fateful day in early July when we had learned that Chris had cancer, we met with a medical oncologist in Charlotte. After the initial consultation with the doctor, we met his oncology nurse. Laurie had a gentle soul, and she was compassionate. Clearly, Laurie had received a calling to be a nurse, and it showed in her temperament and demeanor. Laurie sat with us and explained what we could expect with the chemotherapy treatments. Chris was scared to death, but Laurie reassured her that we would have her full support as Chris underwent the treatments. Her patients really liked her, and Chris did, too. It didn’t take long for Chris to bond with Laurie, and the two quickly became friends.
About a month after that consult with the oncologist, Chris began her first chemo treatments. While I had returned to working at the EMA office by that point, I received permission (and Gene’s support) to go to chemo treatments with Chris. I knew that the chemo would be physically taxing for her, and that she wouldn’t have the energy to drive after her treatments. I also wanted to keep her company, as the treatments lasted several hours a few days a week.
A couple of months later, Chris started to lose her hair. It started falling out very slowly at first, gradually thinning her shoulder-length mane of chestnut brown hair until Chris was eventually bald. It wasn’t bad enough that Chris was a cancer patient. In her own words, she “looked like a cancer patient.” Now the whole world would know that Chris was fighting for her life.
Scott G. Howard worked in the advertising agency business as a media buyer and media director for nearly twenty-five years. He is now an author, storyteller, and freelance writer, and writes from his unique perspective on relationships and life. Scott was born in Syracuse, NY and resides in Charlotte, NC, where he has lived for almost twenty years.