What do you do when you’re told your wife has cancer?
What do you think, what do you feel, what do you say?
First you learn.
There are tumours in the pancreas and the liver, too many and too advanced to resect. What does resect mean? To remove surgically.
Where is the pancreas exactly? He draws with a blue pen on white paper. Here, under the liver. Just behind it. More or less.
Where are the tumours?
Here and here and here. Blue circles.
So if you can’t operate…?
We need to know the tissue type. The biopsy will tell us. What will the tissue type tell us? What kind it is, how fast it’s growing, what kind of treatment it could respond to. You mean chemo? Radiation? What else is there?
We feel like amateurs.
Maybe, maybe not.
What do they mean by maybe not? Is that bad or is that good?
It’s too soon to tell.
Every answer raises a new question. Every new question brings us closer to having to ask the only question that matters. We both know what it is. They know we know. We know they know we know.
What is the etiquette of asking the only question that matters? How are you supposed to phrase it? Is prognosis even the right word? Is there a way of asking it that wouldn’t oblige them to give us the answer we don’t want to hear? What would we do with the answer if it was the one we didn’t want to hear?
Is it for them to tell us before we ask? They’ve been here before. Many times. We haven’t. What do they wait for? When do they know you’re ready to hear?
The masks make it difficult to read their faces. We try to read their eyes and their hands.
Should I ask it before she has to? What if she doesn’t want to know? Which would be worse — to ask or not to ask? Who would be more embarrassed by the worst possible answer — them or us? Her or me? How did embarrassment suddenly become the biggest elephant in the room?
We try to read each other’s eyes. Her hand squeezes back the squeeze of my hand.
So the pancreas?
And the liver?
We run out of questions. The silence seems to be asking the question we haven’t had the courage to ask. Into the gaping yaw of it he says, let’s wait for the scans.
You breathe out. It feels like a reprieve.
Then you try to understand.
After the gastroenterologist it’s the turn of the oncologist.
It’s good news, she says.
You told us she has a tumour the size of a clementine in her pancreas. We know what those two words mean — pancreas and cancer. Now the PET scan shows it’s spread to the bones of her lower spine. How good can it be?
Then you discover.
It’s a neuroendocrine tumour, a NET. They actually smile. Or the voice suggests a smile behind the mask. An unexpected brightness in it. And in their eyes and the eyes of the nurse.
It can be treated with hormone therapy. To begin with. If the tumours stop growing you can live with it. They could even shrink.
And if they don’t?
The question finally asks itself without needing to be spoken out loud.
You have years, the oncologist says.
We take the word home.
Years, we say.
What does years mean?
Just years, she said.
Then you know.
What can a husband do apart from squeezing hands, hugging and saying comforting words? Encourage her to do her favourite things. Pamper her. Bring her her favourite treats. Stop being irritated by her small annoyances. Try to stop your own.
So I ask her how she’s feeling now.
She’s not in pain. She feels fine. She’s okay. She has things to do.
Later I ask again: How are you feeling now?
I’m fine. I’m not in pain. I’m feeling better. I have plenty to do, plenty to look forward to.
The days go by. It was just a simple question. How are you feeling now?
It becomes a mantra, a spell, a blessing.
The treatment starts.
How are you feeling now?
I’m feeling fine. I’m not in pain. I’m happy. I have plenty of wonderful things to do.
We say, we’ve only ever had years.
We’ve just never had to make them count.
Then you accept.
Years mean nothing if now is good.