Cancer From the Sidelines – Part 1


Yes, cancer sucks.

Okay, that’s an obvious understatement, but it’s about the most descriptive adjective I can use in print without resorting to words I promised by 14 year old daughter I wouldn’t use. It definitely sucks most for the person who has cancer, but it is not easy being a bystander to cancer either.

It’s pretty amazing to think that I didn’t actually know anyone with cancer until sometime in my thirties. It was then that my friend Kristy was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time at the age of 30. Her first battle with the dreaded disease was when she was 25. The first time, she opted for a lumpectomy, but the second time she went for the bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) with reconstructive surgery.

I remember visiting Kristy in the hospital a couple of days after her surgery. She was alone in the room when I entered, and she was crying because the pain was so intense. When she saw me, she immediately wiped her eyes and apologized to me. She apologized to me for crying. For being so weak.

In that moment, she became my hero. Not because she was so strong, but because she was so brave.

The covers of blissful ignorance were ripped viciously from my eyes that day, and the realization that bad things happen to good people struck me full force. I’d known this all along, of course, but now I was witnessing it first-hand. Kristy was one of the kindest people I knew. And if cancer could strike someone like her, it could happen to me, too.

I never looked at my life in quite the same way after that.

Cancer didn’t touch my life again until six years later when, fresh from my honeymoon where my new husband and I were living once again in ignorant bliss, I receive a phone call from my father telling me he had esophageal cancer. My mother had passed away only 11 months before and suddenly my entire world started spinning out of control.

Oh God, please let my father live. I had never really needed him before, but I sure needed him now.

My father and I loved each other dearly, but we’d also had a somewhat contentious relationship. He would say something hurtful, I would get defensive, and he would yell at me, tell me I was being too defensive. And so it went. I cursed the fates that took my beloved mother before my father, but I would soon come to understand why it was so.

Several months after my mother’s passing (and before my father’s diagnosis), my father and I had a huge fight on the phone. He once again said something hurtful (this time it involved my mother), I once again got defensive and so on. I slammed the phone down and vowed I would never speak to him again. And then I had an idea. I would write him a letter.

In my letter I told him that the reason I was always so defensive was because he was always attacking me. That nothing I ever did was good enough for him (I was a college graduate and a CPA for crying out loud), and that I felt as though he couldn’t love me unless I was living my life according to the Book of Dad. I mailed the letter (he’s was an old fashioned kind of guy) and I waited. And waited. And then, about 3 weeks later, I got a letter back from him.

In his letter he told me that I was absolutely right, and that he could never see how hard he was being on me. That of his 8 daughters (yes, I’m the youngest of 8), I was the most like him, and he had his own vision of how my career should go.

He validated all the pain and all the insecurities that I’d felt my entire life. And in that single act of reading his letter, I forgave him. He asked me for a second chance (while stating that he did not deserve one), which of course I gave him, and in that moment, I knew why my mother left before he did.

I will be forever grateful that we mended our relationship before cancer because I knew it was from his heart, and not borne out of his need to make things right before dying.

My dad and I: Radiation, Day 1
My dad and I: Radiation, Day 1

And so the cancer journey began for us. I took my dad to endless doctor, radiation and chemo appointments because I was the most geographically located to do so. And as we would sit in the waiting rooms together, he would ask me which of his possessions I wanted, tell me what his desires were regarding his “girlfriend” (don’t ask), and how, as the executor of his estate, he wanted everything settled (including the disposition of the home he and my mother had shared for twenty years).

It was heartbreaking to watch a man who had once been larger than life fade away before my very eyes, but I was grateful that we were, at last, becoming friends.

After dropping my father off at home and tucking him into bed before heading back to work, I would sit in my car and cry. I’d cry for my father, and for myself, and for the family Christmases that would be no more. And then I’d go back to my job. At least until they fired me for missing so much work.

My father put up a valiant fight, and just as he had been at the age of 14 when he stole his brother’s birth certificate, joined the Army, and fought valiantly in World War 2, he was a true soldier to the end. A noble warrior.

And when he died, I became an orphan.

Everyone’s life has been affected in some way by cancer. How has it affected your life? Do you draw inspiration from the courage and bravery of friends or family members who have battled cancer?

Repost from October 1, 2013

9 comments on… “Cancer From the Sidelines – Part 1”

  1. My best friend had breast cancer and lost both her breasts. She came back stronger than ever, but I know that every day she wonders if it will come back. The scary thing about cancer is how random it is, and the cure is so brutal. I work with cancer patients in the Visible Ink Program, mentoring them as they write about their journey. I salute all of them and you also, who are walking on this difficult road.

    • Marianna – what a wonderful thing you do. I just visited the website for Visible Ink. What a great program for cancer survivors.

  2. Well I have a story, but unfortunately it’s still too painful to talk about even though my mother passed away almost 6 years ago. She was brave, too, braver than I think I could ever be, but the real trooper was my dad who stayed faithfully by her side every single step of the way. She held on as long as she could for him. She died about 3 weeks shy of their 50th wedding anniversary.

    I love your story about finding a way to get through to your dad. You just never know what will stick or get through thick skulls.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • You never know what you’re capable of until you’re faced with a situation. I think you’re a lot braver than you know. So sorry about your precious mother. Your dad sounds like a great guy.

  3. Nancy J.

    Your story is so sweet, Suzanne. I think it’s every girl’s dream to connect with her father like that. You had courage to confront him and he had equal courage to make efforts to mend things. What an important example of the power of speaking your truth. Cancer affected my life in a similar way but with a very different ending to the story. When my mom received her diagnosis (she had melanoma), I expected the experience to create an environment where we’d finally connect. I tried to have meaningful, “before you die”, conversations with her but she just couldn’t do it. I cared for her in my home for months. We had the time and opportunity but she preferred to watch Judge Judy and talk about the idiots in the world rather than have a conversation that made her face her mortality. When she died, my dream of an authentic relationship with her died, too. On the flip side, I have a dear friend who has been fighting breast cancer for 15 years. We have these incredible, heavy chats about death, family, loss, love, living in the here and now, and everything in between. While I’ll always mourn the loss of my mom, I feel her inability to face her own mortality has made me all the more interested in facing my own with my heart and eyes wide open.

    • I guess the fear of dying is deep-seated in some people. I’m sorry you never got to connect with her on that level. Thankfully you’re enjoying such a great mother-daughter bond with Carly.

  4. I loved your story about dad! That’s the kind of man he was. Always trying to improve himself and the lives of those around him. My own personal journey with cancer has Opened my eyes to the world around. On the one hand it reminds me that life is a finite thing. If life could be so easily And arbitrarily taken away from me, then what do I have to lose by some risk taking? So I tried scuba diving, motorcycle riding, standup paddle boarding, running, rollerblading! You get the picture. This year I will have completed five 5K races! Year to roller blading marathons. I guess what I’m saying is I’m not afraid to live anymore!

  5. It was wonderful to read how you and your dad mended your issues. You picked the perfect way to reach out to him, and thankfully he heard your words. I’m so glad you had the time to do that before you had to say goodbye.

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