The Cancer Cronicles

Chapter 1

Cancer Visiting Family

My nephew came to my home for dinner. He was asked by his dinner companion “what does your Uncle do?”.  He said “that’s hard to say, my uncle does so many things, he can do a lot of different things well, I’m not sure how to answer that question”.

I loved his answer. It made me happy because it’s true, I developed a pretty wide range of skills and always try to learn new things, understand things I don’t understand and develop areas that interest me.

The thing I know the most about is losing people I love to cancer. I have longstanding experience with this subject. I studied real case studies with my own family and good friends. I loved and cared for people in my immediate and extended family with cancer almost half of my life.

Cancer is the popular club, no one wants to join. It’s a strange experience, watching someone with a terminal illness suffer and die and have no ability to do anything to stop the terrible progression.

My maternal grandmother, both grandfathers, my paternal uncles, my dear friend Dolly, my mother, then my mother-in-law. All had and eventually died from cancer. During my childhood my parents cared for my grandfather with throat cancer. He was a smoker and drinker in his day and it was not a huge surprise it effected his health over time.

Both my mother’s parents had several different kinds of cancer. They lived and died with us  in our house.  My siblings and I cared for my Mother as she suffered late stage cancer she eventually died in my parent’s condo. The first death from cancer in my family came before my fourth birthday, my grandfather on my father’s side of the family.

My grandfather, William”Wild Bill” Walker as he was affectionately called by my Grandmother was the first to invite the spector of cancer into our lives…

I can remember a handful of things about him. 1. He drank a double rock and rye whiskey drink before bed every night, until very near his death jacquins-rock-n-rye-182. He was a great tickler (I was three, so that was pretty important to me) 3. He wore pajamas a hell of lot of the time, so much in fact one day he dressed for some reason and I was so surprised I questioned him about why he was out of his pajamas (to the laughter of the whole family). 4. He coughed all the time, it was a dry repetitive cough, a signature of his presence.  He always coughed 5. He died in my parents’ downstairs bathroom while we sat down to dinner.

He didn’t want to disturb my family and be a bother to his son’s family

He probably didn’t realize he ruptured his throat in late stage cancer the subsequent hemorrhage would end his life.  Right there and then he died in that bathroom during our dinner. The strange thing about this event is despite being so young, (not yet four years old).  I remember many details from that night, vividly.  The details stayed with me for my whole life even now I can remember the tense moments and events.

I remember the incident from the start of that afternoon, my grandfather was especially under the weather and coughing even more than normal. When my Father called us to dinner, my grandfather had a hacking coughing fit. He was saying that he was fine, not to wait for him and start dinner without him.

He was in the bathroom for some time. Eventually the coughing stopped and my Mother looked concerned. She asked my father to check on him. Dad called out “Dad, are you OK? Open the door.” He didn’t answer, my dad was just outside the door. Dad ran up to the kitchen drawer and picked up the small screwdriver we used to trip the bathroom door lock. He opened the door, only to find his father, lying in a pool of blood, dead on the bathroom floor.

I still remember my father crying out “son of a bitch, son of a bitch” after he forced his way into the bathroom. Our grandfather had been standing at the sink, so when he fell his body partially blocked the door. Dad was already too late. The sound of my father punching the bathroom wall, rang out loudly. He came back to the dinner table in a few moments and told my Mother to take us over to our grandparent’s home. Our mother put on our coats ( over our pajamas) and whisked us off in her (1955 Chevy Belair).

The expression of concern and worry on my Mother and Father’s face, my dad’s plaintiff pleas for his father to answer, his muffled crying, the sound of his punch on the bathroom wall, his cursing. Even at that early age I instinctively knew something was wrong with my grandfather. I assumed my father needed to offer him some sort of help and we could not witness this, for reasons I did not understand (this was my suspicion).  

253_main_lMy siblings were older and had greater understanding of what was happening

We arrived in Abington, PA at the home of my grandmother (my suspicion was confirmed).  My Mother whispered something in my grandmother’s ear, she looked very surprised and gasped.

…It was in that moment I knew my suspicions were correct and something serious had happened to my grandfather…

Some time later I asked my father directly if my Grandfather died.  My father was flabbergasted because I was still so young. He assumed I didn’t understand the concept of death and immediately asked who told me. I replied, that no one had to tell me, I noticed because our grandfather lived with us and he was not there anymore.  It sounds simplistic, but even at that age, it’s not, there is a complex set of feelings that goes along with events like these, one day a  person is here, tickling the little ones, talking with their children and the next day they’re gone, having exited without so much as a word. It is a stark reminder of just how precious and fragile life can be.

Cancer can linger, without mercy, and sometimes it’s fast and you don’t even get a  goodbye. Either way you cannot prepare yourself for the eventual end really.

Forty years later my Dad told me the story of trying to open the door and revive his father, after we had left, calling an ambulance and taking him to the local hospital.  He could still recall the conversations and visual details of that night. He told me what the scene was like when he made this grim discovery. More than forty years later he still recalled those events in such vivid detail.  Just like I could remember the details from my own memory.

…Our grandfather died because he chose to stay in the bathroom, trying to help himself rather than disturbing our family dinner..

I was only three, but even at three, I still had such a vivid memory from that night. I knew intuitively something was wrong with my Grandfather. I knew we were hauled over there because of this strange illness, and this was what made my grandfather cough all the time. That was my first experience of death by cancer but it would not be my last.

Three years old, in my parent’s home.  This was where cancer came to call first. It was not that much of a shock, he had smoked cigarettes and a pipe was a drinker too.  

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It visited our family, three more times in my life. Coming into our happy home and changing our lives forever in ways which can be hard to understand.

My Grandfather died when he was 80. My father was 40 and his son (me) was three. When my own father died, he had just turned 82, I was 40, my own son was three and my younger son was just born. It gave me more insight into how hard that must have been for him. It was hard for me too. In my own father’s case, it wasn’t cancer that killed him, but a heart attack, suffered after a long battle with cardio pulmonary obstructive disorder (CPOD) and heart disease. He had wrecked his health from many years of smoking unfiltered lucky strike cigarettes.

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All things considered my dad was mostly pretty well for a lot of his life. He almost had a heart attack at 50, he quit smoking and took better care of himself. He ran, and went to the gym, quite smoking and tried to be more mindful of his health.  He managed his CPOD with medicine and breathing treatments. For most of the rest of his life he was in reasonably good health considering how rotten his health really was. I’m getting ahead of myself. Cancer was far from done with my family at this point in our families story.

Chapter 2

Our grandmother on mom’s side of the family was next…

My grandmother, Julia May Burns, contracted breast cancer. I was just a child about 10 years old.  I had a seven-year break from cancer’s last visit and the aftermath. My grandmother never smoked or drank, to speak of.  She lived a pretty healthy lifestyle too, often playing golf or bowling and eating well.  So it came as quite a surprise and caught us all off guard.

…the Doctor said something about the possibility second-hand smoke from my grandfather’s smoking, years before, may have had a causal effect. Who knows? All we knew for sure was we were in for it again…

It is impossible to say for sure why she got cancer. It can be hereditary, her Mother had died young from complications after surgery. My grandmother was remarkably resilient even in the face of cancer.  She had breast cancer and then bladder cancer, and finally leukemia. There were many treatments, surgical procedures, and she did pretty well for a long time, or so I thought.  As my grandparents got older chemotherapy apparently contributed to her contracting the leukemia.

They eventually sold their house and moved into my sister’s, then later into my parents’ home, so we could take care of them. After some time the progression of the disease, got faster, the complications and treatments became more severe and the damage got worse. Still she was remarkable, in her ability to be positive and supportive, cheerful and upbeat virtually all the time. She was a delight to be with and everyone who met her loved her. She had friends of all ages her whole life. She even stayed friends with an old girlfriend of mine after we broke up.

I would ask her how she felt and she would reply “good” or “not so bad”

In the beginning of this protracted nightmare doctors discovered a tumor(s) in her breast she decided to get a double mastectomy, in an effort to excise the cancer to stop the progression of the disease. She had the operation but still remained remarkably perky and positive about everything.  After the surgery the doctor was giving her post operative advice. She interjected and asked him about “bowling in her league” in two weeks.  The doctor was speechless, he didn’t know what to say. I don’t think he really understood what she was asking. He looked puzzled, bowling…?  After all, she was 80 at the time, and just had major surgery.

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Reminds me of the joke about a guy having surgery and asking the doctor, “will I be able to play violin, after surgery?” Doctor responds “you don’t have to worry about that, this is a state of the art hospital, I’m a specialist and I’ve done this operation many times. Have no fear, after surgery you will be able to play violin!” The man smiled and said “great, I always wanted to play violin!”

(Rimshot! Thank You, here until Thursday, tip your waiters and try the veal!)

The doctor didn’t understand, she was asking for his medical permission to go bowling a week or two after a double mastectomy  (which she did).  He laughed when she explained she “was in a league”. He reluctantly gave her tentative permission with caveats but asked her to be very cautious.  She went on from there and recovered quite well from that episode of breast cancer. Another condition later slowly destroyed her, bladder cancer first, then leukemia.  She was very plucky and proud, she almost never complained of being ill or sick, even just before her eventual death.

Just one of the rotten things about cancer, it makes everyone feel like hell.  When you have it, you’re so sick, you know you make your family sick with worry too, so you keep a brave face and say you’re fine.  But you’re not fine, you’re sick as hell and worried. The terrible side effect of terminal illness in my mind, besides the obvious health concerns, is guilt.

You feel guilty if you’re sick – because you know how hard it is on the family – your family feels guilty too – because they are well and can’t help but think – “what did this person ever do to deserve this fate?” So often times the sick and the well suffer in silence together when cancer comes to call

guilt kills the soul

I can remember that there were times that she was so weak that she was having trouble climbing up the six-inch step into the house, my Dad called out to me and I ran over to literally catch her as she collapsed back out through the door threshold. Luckily I was there to catch her when she fell and picked her up to help her inside. When I was older I started to notice the rigors of the illness taking a toll. She would pray the rosary every day. She’d pray for her sister who died when she 13 and my grandmother was 16, and pray for us, but never for herself.

My bedroom was above where she slept in our home in a hospital bed, and I would hear her quietly sob at night from pain she experienced.  In the morning I would pretend I had not heard her cry and would just casually ask if she needed coffee or breakfast.  She loved coffee and only drank percolated coffee, we had a small coffee pot we would make her coffee in on the stove top.  I would prepare her coffee and spend time talking to her. We had a very special bond of love and friendship.  She was a central figure in my life and a source of constant love and inspiration.

Shortly before she passed away I asked if she was afraid to die, she said, “a little”. She seemed a little relieved I asked so she could talk about it.  I tried to console her saying “don’t you think it will be nice to be reunited with your sister and your parent’s in heaven?” She said “oh who know’s if that’s all true?”  I was absolutely flabbergasted having seen her regularly pray the rosary and attend mass.

I said “grandma you say the rosary everyday, you’re telling me you don’t know if you believe in heaven?”  She said, I don’t know if there is a heaven, that’s why I say the rosary, just in case!  Thinking of it now I still laugh, it was hilarious, she was hedging her bets in case heaven existed by saying the rosary every day for over 80 years! Good old

Catholic Guilt! We love to hate that we love it so, then we feel guilty about that too!

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The day she died I was attending a night class in college.  A friend asked me to go out after class to a local bar with a group of kids from class.  Something told me I should go home.  At the time she had been sick and was under the weather not doing well.  She was very weak in late stage cancer.  We knew it would be a matter of time before the disease took her.  What I did not realize was that would be the night she would depart.

When I arrived at home the house was dark. I knew immediately something was wrong. I went in and seeing a note that read “Went to Hospital” I raced over to the hospital. It turned out, during that day her condition took a turn for the worse, and she waited all day for everyone in the family to arrive to see her off. She could not speak, was very weak, but she would pick up her head and look around the room and point at each person, then lay down again for a while.  She’d done this a number of times that evening.

I was the last to arrive.  I was also very close to her and had a very special bond with her, so we believe the pointing was a headcount of sorts she was doing to make sure we all had arrived.  She was making sure no one was left out of saying our goodbyes.

…She postponed her death to accommodate the family’s arrival.  We all loved her very much, I’m sure she knew we would all want to be there to say our goodbyes…

I sat down next to her and to talked to her.  I got down close to her ear and whispered “don’t be afraid grandma, I’m here, you don’t need to be afraid, it’s ok, you can go”. I was holding her hand. She looked at me one last time, then her breath became very shallow and in next moments, she was gone. I was holding her hand still. I dried my own tears with the back of her hand, kissed her hand and set it down next to her.

It was dramatic with her family crowded around her bed calling things loudly as she died “we love you. love you grandmom, love you Jule, love you Mom…” It was the most amazing moment.  

It was like a scene out of an opera. It was crazy. In the moments just after she died, her eyes remained open, her brother and I tried to close them, out of respect for her. It’s not like someone dying in a movie though. She was holding on to the very last moments of life and her eyes remained wide open even after her death.  Minutes after she died I got up and left. It was strange, I felt no connection to her dead body like when she was alive just moments before. I left the hospital while my family were all still talking about it and crying.

I was gutted emotionally. Later I told a good friend of mine, even though she was old and sick, I thought we would have just a little more time.  In the end, that’s what you always crave, just a little more time.  More time for those special moments that you are so accustomed to sharing together.  One more birthday, or anniversary, or promotion, or birth…just one more.  That nagging longing for more quality time. When you love someone, that’s how you feel.  If you have unresolved issues, then you wish for more time to have that last conversation to make it all “work out”.

Things never work themselves out. Have those difficult conversations and work things out. Say you’re sorry or you were wrong. Say I love you every day, hold hands, smile and enjoy every moment because they are precious and you won’t realize that until it is too late.  

I was watching a television program about Princess Diana, and her sons the Princes of Wales said essentially the same thing.  They said goodbye to their mother the day she died on the phone, very quickly dismissing her because they were running out the door to play or go somewhere.  They both said the same thing.  If they knew this would be the last goodbye I would have said so much more, I would have told her how much I loved her. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prince or a pauper feelings of loss remain the same.

Do not wait to say I love you, treat every day like it could be your last or theirs, because there are no guarantees of a “next time”. There are two certainties in life as the saying goes, death and taxes

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The pain of that loss was particularly deep and long-lasting for me. During college both my grandparents succumbed to cancer, one of my best friends died of a heart attack at age 31 we put our 17-year-old dog down.  That was a hell of a time in my life.  Although the pain of my grandmother’s passing was particularly difficult, because she and I were very close. This would be the first time as an adult I had a close family member get cancer and die. It was the first time I experienced all these complex feelings as an adult.  You would think I would report how I had learned a lesson or knew what it all meant now. Nope, it was just as confusing as when I was three.  It’s hard to understand death by illness at any age.

All things considered she lived a great life, died an old woman at 88. Despite her illness, she remained remarkably upbeat. Despite the fact she was old and sick for a long time her passing was still a terrible blow to my mother and me. She was our greatest supporter, very loving and understanding. She was full of goodness and not much else.  She rarely gossiped or said anything negative about anyone. She was the leader of the family in a lot of ways. Our emotional touchstone which anchored our family optimistically to look at the future as bright and full of possibility.

Her kind and gentle spirit animated conversations and she presided over many good times. Her loss, besides being sad, was a game changer in our family dynamics.  It changes the family relationships every time someone dies. Each person plays a role in the family and effects the others.  When she was gone those conversations were not as light, the tone not always as cheerful. She had a way of ending each conversation and exchange with some encouragement or a positive note, the silver lining. Now she was gone, her role of adding that positive note died too. Those difficult conversations were no longer punctuated with that silver lining anymore.

…Cancer changes family dynamics, it’s  hard to recognize and understand that when someone dies. It is hard to put the family back together because it is now a puzzle with a missing piece…

Chapter 3

My Other Grandfather, Charles Arthur Burns, was next

My grandfather, Jule’s (the grandmother who had died) husband, was next.  He lived a few years more, also dying at 88. We didn’t know he had throat cancer, until just before he died. He mostly lived a pretty remarkably healthy life all things considered.  I loved him very much too, but he was known for being a grumpy old crank.  When he was young he could be a bit negative and nasty. He was the mirror opposite of my sweet grandmother.

My father never liked him, particularly.  But I did. He and I were buddies. He was very kind to me. He was a retired pattern maker (a master carpenter), an amazingly talented guy.  Like my other grandfather (who died at the beginning of this story, who was a machinist). He could fix everything and repair things, making them better than new.  Very highly skilled, hands made rough by hard work and time.  He owned a non ferrous metal smelting foundry, a lumber yard, then a pattern making shop, during his life.

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I would include him on little adventures.  I dragged him into the backyard once to shoot bottle rockets at my brother-in-law who was outside cleaning his yard up. My sister and him had a house two doors down from my parents (where we cared for my grandfather) He had no idea where these explosions were originating from and was surprised as hell when he saw us both laughing and running inside.

I once sent my elderly grandfather to the corner store for some carrots, (to my mother’s horror) he was about 85. In the end it turned out fine, he could not quite manage the carrot buying mission, so we drove down later to buy them.  But he loved being asked to do things that were constructive and not just sit around and get waited on.

A weird side effects of him moving in was his being asked to not do anything anymore out of fear of his frailty.  My mother was not too keen on him doing anything physical but he had been a very active person his whole life. He hated sitting around like a piece of furniture. He resigned himself to this fate and did what he was asked. Our care for him was like putting a wild animal in a zoo. He was used to having total autonomy and free-range of his territory. He died in 1992 also at 88 years old.

The same year I took my first overseas trip to Spain (Madrid, Zaragoza, Toledo and Barcelona).  I couldn’t hardly wait to see him and tell him about the things I saw there. Show him photos from Spanish architecture and churches. I knew he would really love to see this because he had made so many things himself during his career. While I was on the Spain trip I’d think of things to tell my grandfather when I got back. I was cataloging the stories in my mind, so I could recount them accurately when I got back.

I was going to tell him about the ancient cities I visited, things I’d seen and done.  Then develop the photos and show him the wooden pattern work and carving in churches and palaces I visited. That moment was not meant to be however. Cancer came to call again while I was away in Europe.

My Father intercepted me in the front yard of his house to tell me.  He didn’t want me to find my grandfather’s empty hospital bed in the middle of the living room. He broke the bad-news right there on the front lawn of my childhood home. It felt like a punch in the gut. Instead of celebrating and enjoying the trip together we planned grandpop’s funeral. We pressed a suit, and brought his best clothes and dress shoes to the undertaker, to bury him. That’s another tragic side effect of cancer on the family, it upstaged the other good things that happen. It’s hard to enjoy the good times because cancer is so serious it has the tendency to overshadow other good events happening at the same time.

Almost no mention of that trip was made, we just put it on a shelf to be talked about later. His death took the place of that celebration. It came in my senior year of college. Money was tight, I had a small business and worked full-time, but managing my expenses and mounting college bills was virtually impossible. I needed to regroup my finances and take a break. I decided to take six months off school my senior year to regroup my finances and save some money before returning.

I needed a break at the time so I decided to work for the season at a local golf course as a bartender and waiter. I played golf once a week for free and went about my business. Though a club member I got a job catering motion pictures on location in NYC and worked in the city for several years. A fire in my apartment building forced me to me move out and left me without a lot of good options. So I took a job with a cruise line in Florida with the intention of working one season, then returning home, moving back into my repaired apartment, and going back to college.

…I did not return home however, I stayed on that cruise line for several more years and didn’t finish my college degree for 21 more years. My Mother made me promise her, on her death-bed, I would finish my degree, so eventually I did…

I had some great years after college working at a motion picture caterer and then going down to Florida and working for a cruise line.  It was a grand time.  No one was sick for a change. It felt like this terrible vail of sadness had finally been lifted. I met my future wife, we started dating.  We traveled all over Europe. My family and I became more close than ever. It finally seemed like we were all catching a break after these years of suffering. I was doing well with the cruise line, had been promoted to Acting Cruise Director, then Cruise Director.

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The line was building a new ship at that time so it would be a short time until I had a permanent Cruise Director assignment. Things felt like they were looking up and coming together, life was great in every way.

Chapter 4

Rose “Dolly” Petti, a goog friend’s mother and my sweet and wonderful friend was next on this terrible list

In the intervening years before my Mother herself would die from this terrible disease I would know other’s cancer would visit. Before it came back to our home again.  One of my good friends Mother’s, “Dolly” would die after my uncle from the west coast and before the two uncles from the east coast (I think).

Dolly was a lot like my grandmother, very kind, sweet and caring, motherly, in a word.  I would eat over their home all the time.  She was a joy, so pleasant, charming, dignified and kind.  I still miss her like I miss my own Mother.  Later when I got married I went to her grave to put an invitation on her grave.  I visit her grave every now and then. She was laid to rest just a few hundred feet from my parents final resting place.

…Dolly’s cancer was in many ways similar to my grandmother’s. She had the illness, got treatments, had a period of restored health, only to get sick again and succumb to the disease…  

Like my grandmother Dolly rarely complained and was remarkably upbeat.  At her wake her husband, my friend Lou, came over to me (I was a little emotional). Lou put his hand around my shoulder and said “we lost a good friend today.” Even now when I think of that moment, it makes me emotional.  Lou was at his own wife’s wake, his childhood sweetheart, and he was taking the time to console me.  It cemented my love for him and his family even more. It was really helpful too at that moment, because I really did feel that loss.

…As deaths from cancer increase you feel each one a little more than the last, when another occurs.  It becomes collective sadness, not just a painful singular event…

Chapter’s 5, 6 & 7

Three uncles were next: Al, Don and Bob.

My father’s brothers all died during this period

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….I have trouble remembering the type of cancer and years each one died. I know they all had cancer…If my Mother were here, she could tell me – but she isn’t here to supply these answers because cancer took her too…For my Dad, it must have been devastating to lose the other pieces of his families puzzle, all in a short time.

My Uncle Al, who lived on the West Coast, was the next to get cancer. It was many years ago, (I believe he had brain cancer). I remember my Father said he was talking to him one minute and he seemed good and he died a few minutes later.  I could see the look on my Father’s face of shock and loss.  It must be especially hard to lose a sibling.  I have a brother and two sisters and the idea of loosing them had not even occurred to me by that time in my life.

My Uncle Al’s death was sad but mostly because it made my Father so sad.  I never knew him very well, he moved out west before my birth and lived out there my whole life. He died after a relatively short illness that took his health. Life went back to normal fairly quickly, Al was not a young man when he died. He was 80 years old, so the sadness was tempered by his age.  He lived out a full life and we were sad to see him go.

My other uncle, Don, who was my fathers youngest brother was next to die.  I know at the end of his life he had cancer in more than one place.  I think it started in his lung, then went to his brain. He was a heavy smoker for a long time. A funny guy and a very interesting person. A private pilot and business owner he had a number of family folklore stories associated with him. He was always pretty cheerful and happy-go-lucky when I would see him. Again, he was not very close to my family, living in Florida.  It was sad to see my Dad suffer through another one of his siblings deaths so soon.

Especially his younger brother, it was hard on him, but my dad was fairly closed off emotionally and didn’t really talk about his feelings that much. He used to recount funny stories about my Uncle Don.  It was sad, but it was not that surprising because of his lifestyle. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer (I think) the disease was already fairly advanced.  By the time he knew he was sick it was already too late. He had late stage cancer that was found to late to treat effectively.  It spread, he went into hospice and he died with his children and my parent’s by his side.

He was cremated, his ashes were spread in an acrobatic maneuver a “Cuban Eight” from the Steerman bi-wing airplane a friend of his owned. He was a private pilot he used to do acrobatic flying, with friends. He also owned his own Beechcraft Bonanza. He was a great character and he went out like he lived, flamboyantly.

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The last brother to die was our Uncle Bob, he lived fairly close to us. For unknown reasons my father had not stayed close with him.  I saw the remorse on his face when he came from the hospice where his brother had died.  I think he felt sadness for not having taking the time to remain more close over the years. He wanted just a little more time to clear things up and iron the wrinkles out, to make things “right”.  But you don’t get that with cancer, it comes when it wants, it does what it does, and takes the people you love when it choses, not when it is convenient for you.

That’s the funny thing about cancer it hurts everyone, it is an equal opportunity offender. It’s amazing to recount this family history all at once.  I forget sometimes how much loss my family experienced during these years. We had seen death in the family many times by now.  After every terrible incident there was a period of calm.

It was like a shark attack in an ink black sea during the night.  The pain of the strike arrived without warning, it could come back whenever it liked and inflict more pain and possibly kill you, then it could disappear into the darkness. After a few more years of relative calm and some really good times, cancer came knocking at our door again.

….I was working in the Caribbean on a cruise ship, having a great time with my future wife (then girlfriend) when I received the bad news. My mother had the same cancer which killed my grandmother all those years before – this time however it was worse, the cancer was discovered later in this case…

Chapter 8 & 9

My Mother Mildred Burns Walker was next…

Six months later… like a terrible replay of the worst days of my life – my mother-in-law also died of breast cancer Anna Pozsonyi

Everything changed when my Mother was diagnosed with cancer, it had come back to our home again, calling for my Mother this time.  It was like a black pall was pulled over our home again. Like her Mother, she had bladder cancer. Ironically she had asked her doctor about examining her three times before she was finally diagnosed, all tests came back negative for cancer.  It turned out my Mother’s intuition was correct however and she did have bladder cancer. By the time the test could confirm it she had stage three cancer with a formed tumor on the wall of her bladder.

If you know anything about cancer this is not good.  Having a solid tumor attached to your body is a very hard thing to get rid of at that stage. Generally stage 3 is an illness that you can be treated for but that usually leads to stage 4 cancer, terminal cancer. This was the beginning of my adult experience with cancer with: pain, suffering, the healthcare system, care taking, suffering, and aftermath of this rotten illness.

I will close this chapter here – the story of my Mother’s illness is very long and the suffering was deep and lasting for my poor Mother and for our family.

Her experience with this disease it too terrible to document and too painful to recount in detail. Suffice it to say, she was a fighter.  Who despite long odds against her and an aggressive illness, lived for 8 years with cancer.  Her oncologist came to her funeral and told us she was her longest living patient with stage 4 cancer ever in her practice.

My mother had a kidney removed, it came back into her lung, her lung was removed it came back into her brain.  Later in her life, she was bedridden because the tumors had put pressure on an area of the brain that controlled her motor skills. My Mother endured two major surgeries, had 69 chemo therapy treatments and 12 radiation treatments before she succumbed to the disease and after she died we received a red hat in the mail.

Ever the optimist she ordered a red hat to be worn by cancer survivors in the red hat society. Where they traveled around taking photos of themselves with red hats on. My Mother in law was similarly a terrible and awful story of aggressive cancer taking her life after a very gallant and lengthy struggle. There was no way around the inevitable for her either.  She died and changed her family dynamic too.  Everything changed my mother in law animated the house with life they had four pets the house was full of light, and talking, and laughing, and cooking and eating and more laughing.  It was grand and wonderful – until it wasn’t anymore.  There was a hole there.  That can not be easily filled. A hole forms in the fabric of the tapestry of your family, your family DNA is broken and not matter how you try you will not put it back the way it was before.  It’s changed.

Dna Puzzle Piece 3d Research Genetic Healthcare

I recounted this story to talk about some of my experiences. To offer fellow caretakers who suffered the pain and guilt that comes along with these terrible illness. I wrote it to let people know who suffer now, and for those whom have long suffered like our family to let them know that they are not alone in these terrible mixed emotions. It was cathartic to recount it really because I do not usually tell it as one continuous narrative. Cancer is awful, I hope for my son’s sake that some day they cure this disease.

…I would not wish cancer on my worst enemy.  F$@# CANCER. This is what I have taken away from these experiences…

My 20 Cancer Experience Take Aways

  1. Cancer – Is hard to come to grips with
  2. It will become your families central focus – ever-present in everyone’s mind
  3. Cancer suffers, in many cases, have to endure painful and invasive treatments
  4. Cancer will scare the shit out of you and everyone else
  5. It should become a topic you talk about and is often swept under the table
  6. Platitudes like “we’re going to beat this so we don’t need to talk about it” are nonsense
  7. Even if you do “beat” cancer, you should talk about it, a lot
  8. Cancer is going to break everyone’s heart – know this
  9. You will say things like his/her death was “a blessing” that ended his/her suffering
  10. You probably will not feel very blessed – you should get help dealing with your feelings
  11. Care takers of the terminally ill must make sure they take care of themselves too
  12. Cancer is a family disease, you will all suffer along with the one you love
  13. The Cancer club is very large – there are people available who understand and can help
  14. Grief comes in stages – when you love someone it may take a while to get over
  15. It’s OK if you get over it fast or slow, everyone is different
  16. Talking about pain, suffering, and your feelings, is a salve that can heal emotionally
  17. If you are troubled go get help, look in the phone book call the cancer society, call your church, call your best friend – call someone and tell them that this is taking an emotional toll – people want to help you.
  18. Being sick, or feeling sad is not a crime, you should never feel guilty to “burden others” if you are really suffering. Many times I would talk about illness with my Mother or Grandmother, most others would not bring it up. I could see the relief on their faces just to have a short chat about the feelings or fears.
  19. I know what it’s like to suffer through this – if you need someone to reach out to
  20. It will get better, really, it will.  Until it does, you have my sympathy I assure you.

Chapter 10

Cancer’s Aftermath

…Next Chapter Summary Below…

I plan to tell my own story and hopefully interview some of my friends who similarly experienced these kind of events. I would like this to be a post people can read and add their own story in the comments section as a living document. If you are experiencing this disease now as a sufferer or as someone who is trying to ease the pain and suffering of a loved one.  I wanted to write this down so you could see these feelings are similar. Anyone that experienced cancer knows what it’s like. All members of a terrible club that no one wants to join, all the members know how one another feel.

Do you have your own cancer story of a loved one or family member? If you feel it could be cathartic to leave your feelings in the comments section, please do.  Get them off your chest feel and free yourself of this burden in comments section below. Hopefully this was of some service to someone and someone can relate to this and hopefully benefit in some small way.

Next Chapter’s Content…

  • The feelings which accompany terminal illness for the sick and the well.
  • The silent suffering of the healthy, and the mixed emotions of long-term care giving
  • The anger, guilt and shame that can accompany this rotten awful disease….

This next section could be many chapters long … for now … it is to be continued later… in the cancer chronicles…

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3 Comments on “The Cancer Cronicles

    • It’s very scary and the uncertainty is unsettling. There is an implicit desire to not be a “burden” to those who love you and those you love when cancer visits and this is one of the most terrible things of all. All suffer in virtual silence, when the question how are you is posed the answer is reflexive, fine. I am fine… really? That is the awful thing about it, the walking on the egg shells trying to dodge the emotional mine field. My Grandmother and I had really frank conversation about life and death and I think it helped her. It eased her burden a little to be able to say that she was scared or worried and I will be forever grateful for those conversations. Good luck to you and your husband, its a rotten thing. All my best. AW

      Liked by 1 person

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