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Monday, January 21, 2008 

The C Word

Dictionary.com defines it as the following:

can·cer /ˈkænsər/ [kan-ser]

1. Pathology.
a. a malignant and invasive growth or tumor, esp. one originating in epithelium, tending to recur after excision and to metastasize to other sites.
b. any disease characterized by such growths.
2. any evil condition or thing that spreads destructively; blight.

There was a third definition about a zodiac sign, but that doesn't fit today's discussion, so let's choose to ignore it.

Cancer has touched the Chaos house not once, but twice now. My aunt is fighting and winning her battle with colon cancer. She is my mom's sister, and as early as I can remember, I have felt like one of her own. In her mid-60s, she unapologetically dyes her hair a bright, shocking red. One of the most upbeat and dynamic individuals I know, hearing her news was a punch in the gut. It left me reeling with uncertainty for her future as well as mine.

My aunt found out her news in a shocking way. One night her temperature became dangerously high. After being admitted, it was discovered her bowels had ruptured, her insides were gangrenous, and just like that she had cancer. One moment seemingly well, and then not so much.

I admit I have been selfish in regards to her illness. I root from the sidelines, choosing to get sanitized updates via my mother. I wear my Livestrong bracelet in support of her battle. Yet I can't bring myself to call her on the phone. It would make the word too real, too present to ignore. It's difficult enough hearing secondhand that she is wanting to give up;hard to hear she doesn't want to have any more of the medications that will save her life. As I sit here and type this, I can tell you which number chemo treatment she is on (seven), how many more she has to go (five), and how her overall outlook is (the doctors are optimistic they will soon be able to say cancer free). What I can't tell you are the things that humanize the battle. Do I know if my aunt, who has been a hairdresser all her life, still has her hair? Shamefully, I do not. I don't want to hear how tired her voice sounds or how defeated she is after her latest chemo treatment. And once you finish reading this post, you will understand why my shame has been doubled.

A few months after we got the news on my aunt, Mr. Chaos received a call no one wants to hear. His mother called to tell us a spot was found during her annual mammogram. She was upbeat and dismissive, telling us it was most likely nothing, even though all of us knew the urgent manner the doctors had when setting up her biopsy date was not a good sign. Biopsy came back positive, which led to MRI. MRI showed spots on the spine, which led to nuclear scan. Nuclear scan showed lesions on the spinal column, skull, several ribs, and an arm bone.

And now here we are. Words and phrases are being thrown at us all over again. Words like "Femara" and "metastasized" and "3% survival rate". Words that individually can be dissected and defined. But as a whole, those words become an incomprehensible jumble of angst that is immobilizing. How can someone continue to want to fight after hearing 3% survival rate? Thankfully, my mother-in-law is looking at things in her cheerful way. Even more thankfully, she is choosing to ignore the things the doctors are not saying. Like the fact that although she has had her diagnosis for over two months now, no doctor has talked about surgery on her breast.

Mr. Chaos has been dealing with things in his usual way. He bottles everything up within himself, believing with every fiber of his being that ignoring it will make it all go away. I remind him on a daily basis to be gentle with the kids as they do not yet know. Not that he isn't gentle, but more that he isn't his usual laid back self. I feel that I am floating adrift with this news, and I feel the need to anchor myself. Yet I respect his need to find his own way to acceptance.

Meanwhile I have been busying myself with things I can handle for him. I spent an entire day organizing the vast quantity of CDs, video games and DVDs into binders....a job Mr. Chaos has been promising to do over a year now. I made the phone call to the plumber to start our bathroom remodel. Tomorrow I plan on reorganizing our file cabinet. I started the job today, but was waylaid when I found something I had been wanting to discuss with him. In my quest for order in our lives, I found her will.

The will was drafted six years ago. I took it out of the manila envelope, and read her final wishes as I still crouched on the floor in front of the file cabinet. Yet again I found a life summarized by things said and unsaid. I now know my mother-in-law wishes a memorial service at a certain church. No heroic measures will be taken in extending her life. She wishes to be an organ donor. In the event of Mr. Chaos' passing before her, she wishes all worldly possessions be left to Cman. LMD and Youngling weren't born yet. That omission was what finally made me weep. Not because they had been left out. In reality, they hadn't, if the phrase "and any future children of my offspring" was any indication.

At that moment I truly began to realize all the things cancer will be taking, from all of us. As it continues to eat away at her body, it is also eating away a mother, a grandmother, and a warm human being. She won't be at the weddings of the chaos kids. She won't see Youngling in school, meet Cman's first girlfriend, or witness any of LMD's dance recitals.

What muddies the waters in this are the things she will be gaining. My mother-in-law is loving and kind when her medications are working. Not the cancer ones....the ones for her bipolar disorder. There have been times where for the sake of the kids or for Mr. Chaos, where contact has been limited. When my mother-in-law is ill with her bipolar, she tries to hurt everyone she can. We have worried on more than one occasion for Cman's safety. So with this cancer diagnosis she will be gaining dignity and most importantly, peace. She will be free to be the person we all know she can be after she passes. It's hard to begrudge her of that. So, all the losses aside, I do feel that she must be looking forward to release. I have been able to watch this all from an emotional distance. In the past whenever issues with her health arose, Mr. Chaos and I dealt with them together eventually.

This time I have been increasingly frustrated with how completely I have been shut out. Any mention of "that word" in this house leads to a change of subject or a change of scenery on the part of Mr. Chaos. I will admit as the weeks have gone on I have become more terse in my interactions with him. I failed to understand why he couldn't discuss things with me, or at least acknowledge the necessity for making certain decisions.

Yet today, in writing this post, I have realized a few things. He calls her on a daily basis to see how she is doing. After years of intermittent communications, he has forgiven her and is making himself available to her as much as she needs it. He may not want to face the details, but he has been able to make himself emotionally raw. Instead of hiding with excuses of distance and commitments like I do with my aunt, he is not only facing her cancer but their troubled past. He is braving it all to help them both find peace.

As for me? When I hit submit, I think I'll be making two phone calls. One to my mother-in-law, and then one to my aunt. I think it's time we talked.

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oh sweetheart...



That's a lot to be living with my dear. I'm glad you got the opportunity to write it down, and I hope it helped ease your burden a little bit.


That is a very well written post about a tough topic.

I am very much like that in the avoidance area. But, you know, sometimes things are harder in the thinking about than in the actual doing. I think you will be glad you called your aunt.

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