Memories are such odd things. For the most part, we repaint our recollections with each telling. Cancer is the distinct exception to that rule.
It’s five years ago this week that we learned that my wife, Melody, had breast cancer. There’s no fog around that Friday afternoon as I stood in our kitchen and her doctor gave me the news over the phone. Melody was too upset to take the call. I ran my finger along the ceramic tile joints on our kitchen counter while the radiologist talked about the biopsy. The tile was smooth and cold. The grout was rough. From just a few feet away, a field of tile is satisfyingly uniform and sensible. Up close, the tiles and joints are wildly imperfect.
I ran my finger around the tiles as the radiologist relayed details of Melody’s cancer. It was about 4 centimeters in diameter, possibly the size of a ping-pong ball. Ping-pong balls mean cancer to me now. The conversation turned toward hormone receptors, estrogen, surgery, chemo and staging the cancer. Melody looked so far away. I couldn’t tell you the doctor’s name. I’ll never forget his voice. Even after five years, it runs through my mind like an awful song you can’t stop hearing.
The shock gave way to fear almost instantly. The doctor hadn’t even finished talking before the first jolt raced to my finger tips, my ears, my legs. From that moment, we were under siege. Cancer had barged into our lives and now held a gun to my wife.
Despite “good” news about getting the cancer early, about how “treatable” the cancer was, about how successful the surgery, the radiation and the chemo was, even after five years of negative mammograms, we’re still at war with cancer. It still holds us hostage. For now, we have simply negotiated a truce.
Cancer is a lonely disease. You not only live in a perpetual state of fear when it comes banging at the door in the middle of your life, but it’s a huge turn off to friends and family who want to be sympathetic but don’t seem to know how to deal with fact that the grim reaper has handcuffed himself to you or someone you love. Most people choose to ignore it’s there, even though it’s all you usually think about.
I cringe when I hear others say how “lucky” Melody was, and how lucky our family was. They say she was lucky because doctors caught the cancer early enough to apparently keep it from spreading, and that for now, it has not returned. No one who gets cancer is lucky. There will be 4,543 Americans who can tell you that today when they get the bad news themselves. In fact, your chance of getting the bad news before you die is 50-50 if you’re a man who lives into his 70s or beyond.
But after five years of having cancer in our house cocking and uncocking the gun each time Melody gets an x-ray or adjustment to her Tomoxifen, I can honestly say that life can be good. Damned good.
Just days after they took the ping-pong cancer grenade out of Melody’s body, we went to Germany and France with friends. I careened across the Autobahn while Melody slept off pain killers. We ate and drank and laughed all we could. We’re still laughing.
A friend marveled a couple years ago how we’ve come to be “at peace” with Melody’s cancer. There is no peace with cancer. Even if you slay your tormentor before it kills you, its ghost terrorizes you for the rest of your life. Instead, we have become resolved to fight against the terror, and resolved to appreciate how astounding living really is.
Life has become a passionate quest for everyone in my house. I never watch television, ever. I always look into Melody’s eyes, even when she pisses me off. I stop a lot. I stop to watch it snow. I stop to pick up my favorite stout, Melody’s favorite Sancerre. I stop to search for cheap tickets to Iceland. I stop to watch Melody ski down alpine cliffs. I stop to watch her draw faces in chocolate ganache she smears across the white tile on the kitchen counter.
Life is so much harder when you’re in the never-ending war. But the minutes are so much sweeter, so much funnier, so much brighter, so much scarier. Everything is so much more. So we mark the anniversary and shift our pose while cancer cocks his gun again, just to let us know he’s still here.
Reach editor Dave Perry at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]