When real life meets cancer you get the good, the bad, and the ugly

I just finished reading a “blogger’s guide” on the Internet by Jeff Goins on what makes a great blog post, and am about to break just about every one of his rules.  Sometimes, when real life meets cancer, the results don’t fit into a tidy 500-word post with a defined beginning, middle, and end, like your high school English outline.  Sometimes, life gives you the full range of emotions in a small window. Sometimes, you just get the good, the bad, and the ugly all at the same time.

First, the bad – I hate hearing good news first and then being totally deflated by the other foot dropping.  It is part of the reason I am glad Dr. Weber is very direct and blunt in his assessments of my progress - someone told us once that he was “a brilliant doctor, but his ‘bedside manner’ was not very empathetic.” That was just fine with me – give me the worst of it to process, so that whatever good news there may be can be hopeful and not lost in the shadows of the bad stuff.  That is how I converse with most people when talking about my current condition; ergo, that is how I write about it, too.

This weekend’s “bad” was sandwiched around a whole bunch of “good” things, Josie’s birthday party being the featured activity.  The Sunday lunchtime party was a huge success by all accounts; she had a blast, we had 80-some people in the park across the street from our house, and things just sort of fell into place, even with a couple of logistical issues during setup.  Sort of like a wedding, there are little things you plan meticulously for that sometimes don’t go as  planned, but are almost never noticed by guests.  So, what was so “bad” about a St. Patrick’s Day party for a three year old?

The bad was realizing how cancer has affected my abilities to be the man, the husband, the daddy I want to be.  Just the setup and entertaining of the party took a toll, physically – and that is with a ton of help.  Towards the end, I had to head home and just lay on the sofa for a bit.  I know, I know… my body is still recovering from some pretty intense trauma, and rest is the only real cure for that.  Still, if you have ever felt a role in life, not filling that role leaves a void in you.  In more macho days, it would have been called “not feeling like a man”, but today, anyone should be able to identify with losing part of your identity.  I am the strong one and the protector of my family.  Leaving a party – and the responsibilities of cleanup – to go lay down just isn’t something that I would let happen, no matter how lousy I felt.

The other bad feeling was actually part of a more precious moment.  Josie, in between running around and playing in the bounce house and dancing with Princess Belle, grabbed me and put her arm around me to dance.  We do this in the living room all the time to some of her favorite Disney tunes (she’s a Disney Princess-aholic) and it’s always great.  This time, though, things just hit me.  “How many birthdays will I be able to celebrate?” and “Is this the only dance I am going to get?”  It was rough; physically challenging is tough enough, but when those moments of doubt creep in – especially during the happiest of days – it makes you feel even worse.  For the first time, I felt weak and sick, all at once.

OK, so how do you transition this to the “good”, much less integrate the “ugly.”  Well, the ugly one is easy – after seeing some pictures of the weekend, damn, I don’t look that good.  At least in the hospital I was expected to look lousy.  Out at a birthday party, I don’t want to look like the “cancer patient.”   Spotty facial hair and a skinny face that just make me look like I am sick.

The good thing… well, the good thing is easy, too.  The whole weekend was a good thing.  Being with our church community at the annual Fish Fry was a good thing.  Doing a three mile cancer walk on Saturday morning was a good thing, even if it was the beginning of my tiredness. Seeing my sister-in-law’s parents and having my parents come down for the weekend was a good thing.  Having a big birthday party, while continuing the tired weekend, was way beyond just a good thing.  Being with family and friends, all of whom helped make the birthday party a success (and make up for my lack of participation), were a great medication to my fatigue.  Seeing the happy smile of a three year old, surrounded by love and happiness, was the perfect tonic to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a nap and cry instead of the old pint and a shot. 

Now, this week brings us closer to Plan B and renewed optimism and challenges.  There will be good days.  I am sure there will be bad moments, too.  Ugliness is sort of a constant, since I don’t think the cancer recovery look is hitting the pages of GQ anytime soon.  This weekend was a lot of good mixed with a couple of memorable bad moments. 

The one moment I might remember the most is where bad turned to good.  Sitting on the edge of my bed, with the sick feeling still sitting in my stomach and the remnants of one of the few emotional moments still welling up in my eyes, I looked at the clock.   At 3:17 PM on March 17th, I reminded myself of all the reasons I fought so hard for the last six months to beat melanoma.  If you believe in signs, or the luck of the Irish, or even just eerie coincidences, then you know that moment you feel the tide has turned. This was that time. From the Gaelic word meaning “health”, the toast I had given a hundred times on St. Patrick’s Day rang in my head.  Slainte!  We had lifted countless glasses to that with just a passing thought to its literal meaning. Now, its meaning is the only thing that really makes a difference. 

Slainte, my friends.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »