Breast Cancer: Tragedy, Followed by Discovery, Then Played Forward
This short article, sent anonymously by a gynecologist to the periFACTS OB/GYN Academy, describes one man’s journey to discovery.
I am a physician, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. Many years ago, at the age of 43, my former wife was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and died at age 47. Our journey began the day before Valentine’s Day when her mammogram was scheduled. I had ordered flowers to be delivered the next day. What should have been a perfect Valentine’s Day instead was filled with phone calls to a surgeon and an oncologist regarding how to manage breast cancer. While outsiders might have felt sympathy, sadness, even pity, could they really understand the significance of those next four years? The path my wife and I took can truly be appreciated only by those who have traveled it.
Of course, those four years tested me and my family, but no one more than my wife. A brilliant writer, she was reduced to confusing the oxygen tube for the music head set. She struggled to use phrases that she previously had written in elegant prose hundreds of times, all the while fighting to journal her inner thoughts, fears, and needs. Faced with the inevitable, her intent was to write cards to her family to be opened years later during birthdays, marriages, or births. Unbeknown to me at the time, she never succeeded in that task, and I searched for months, hoping unsuccessfully to find those cherished messages.
It was during the last three months of her life that I left medicine to become her complete care provider. Her mother and father, estranged for over 20 years by a vitriolic divorce, finally reunited at her bedside; no trauma or theatrics, only two parents saying goodbye to their daughter.
And it was during that time that I experienced my own journey of discovery, not knowing if I would have the strength or patience to take on this new role. Yet, when my wife was angry, I became her consoler. When she was sad, I was there to lift her up. When she finally passed peacefully, an outsider might mistakenly have imagined my sense of relief. That did not happen. During those last few months, so completely immersed in her care, I found my real purpose in life, my inner strength, and my ability to tolerate the intolerable. In the weeks following her passing, I felt stripped of my role, even as I had resumed my medical practice and, for any outsider, probably appeared to be engaged in life once more.
Today I am happily remarried with a full life. But one might ask if back then the journey my wife and I shared left me with a purpose? I am a better husband, father, and physician for having known her. I no longer feel awkward seeing patients and their families who are struggling with their own experiences. In fact, sitting and listening are often my best contributions to their plight. I cherish that gift.
Most breast cancer survivors want the life they had always hoped they would have. And they want to be respected as women despite the treatments they have endured. The gynecologist has the opportunity to provide a holistic approach to satisfy these wishes and to be part of the care team.
James Woods |