Light at the End of the Tunnel

Such a hopeful headline. I don’t really mean it. Or maybe, not in the way it seems. This cancer thing seems to be a series of tunnels. An endless series of tunnels. We’ve gone through a few already, and “great news!” we’ve made it through each. The current tunnel is radiation. Mark only has six treatments left, with two additional chemo treatments. Today, The Great Stoic is finally saying he feels lousy. This is significant, because like many Boomer men raised in working class families marked by wartime and layered with an immigration background, Mark doesn’t crack easily. This nearly seamless “I got this” facade leads him to be annoyingly cagey with doctors, like last spring when the four-hour nosebleed during which I taught him how to use a tampon as a plug became “a little nose bleed” when he told the doctor. This is a guy who—after they removed the front of his skull, dug out the bad gunk and reattached the “bone flap” as they call the piece they removed—reliably reported that he had no pain. Ever. None. Brain surgery? No problem. “I got this.”

So to hear Mark now say, as he did an hour ago, “I’m suffering,” is kind of jarring. I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I love him, and I don’t want him to be uncomfortable. I also don’t like it because I can do nothing about it. We’re at the stage where the list of things Mark could need is very short. While getting a liter of saline at the hospital today, Mark sat up from a nap. “I…I, um…I…” he looped. “What do you need, Mark?” The nurse was there. She went through the list. “Are you in pain?” “Are you hungry?” “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” “Do you want something to drink?” No to all. She looked at me. We both shrugged. Once you get through that list, there’s nothing to be done.

And so Mark and I sit. A lot. We nap. Cat naps for me, long stretches for him. We wait. Wait for the treatments to be done. Wait for scans to tell us if the cancer is gone. Wait for doctors to tell us what to do next.

Mark and I are moving through this tunnel, but it often feels like we are standing still. It is reminicent of how it felt when I rode my bike through some pretty impressive train tunnels last summer. The longest, the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C & O Canal, is over 3,100 feet. You turn on your headlight, you keep your eyes on the dot of sunlight ahead, and you ride. And ride. And ride. At some points, I got that little niggly worry in my head that I was, in fact, in a Waiting for Godot moment, some existential play where I’d never reach the end.

After the six final radiation treatments, the oncologist waits a couple months before Mark’s next CT scan. The radiation continues to damage the cancerous cells past the final radiation treatment. Only by waiting can we learn the definitive outcome of the treatment. When the crocuses are blooming, we reach the next fork-in-the-road moment, with either a path leading us towards maintaining a cancer-free status, or a path to more treatment choices.

As Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *