1. Lukasik, Gail MA, PhD


The 'what ifs' can multiply when a loved one survives cancer.


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My husband and I wake into the narrow December dark. He brushes his teeth, dresses, then busies himself as I eat breakfast. His packed suitcase sits by the back door. It's 5 AM, two days before Thanksgiving. At precisely 9 AM, the surgeon will remove my husband's right kidney, the one he is 99% sure is cancerous.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Elizabeth Sayles

The house has a quiet ticking sound-the furnace clicks on, the clock's minute hand slowly advances. We don't say what we are both thinking-how he could die. Instead, we talk about other things. How I'll come home after the surgery and see to the dog, how fortunate it is that the hospital is five minutes from our house, how (barring no heavy city traffic) our daughter should arrive around nine, how our son will fly into O'Hare next week-plans predicated on our conviction, based on nothing but our need to believe it, that everything will be all right.


And while we're talking, I'm trying not to see how glazed his blue eyes are with fear.


I tell him once again my belief that this isn't cancer, that until it's confirmed, I'm clinging to the 1% chance. A kind of magical thinking I've fallen into since this all began allows me to function, because I've yet to take it all in.


Just two weeks ago, my husband stood in the family room and told me he had cancer. And though I was hearing and understanding him, I refused to believe what he said. For a moment I even considered that he might be joking.


We stood there for what seemed like forever, until I finally heard him, until I understood that the slight pain in his back we'd thought was his gall bladder wasn't.


After that, for the two weeks before the surgery, we soothed ourselves with "what ifs"-a way to defer the inevitable "why me?"


What if the technician who performed the MRI on his gall bladder hadn't moved the scan beyond the required area? Was she following a hunch, or was she just being thorough? What if that day she'd been tired or distracted? What if she hadn't seen the dark shadow?


Then right now we'd be asleep, warm in our bed, living without fear. No one would be cut open today. And cancer might be growing quietly, but surely, inside him.


The surgery takes too long. My daughter and I sit through the morning as the other family members are called. We reassure each other that this is a big surgery. But after two hours have passed, the two hours predicted by the surgeon for the operation, we begin to worry in earnest. I ask the waiting room volunteer what she knows. She says, "He's still in surgery."


Finally, the surgeon and his assistant come into the waiting room and tell us the surgery went well and that the cancer was encapsulated within the kidney. Which means he doesn't need chemotherapy or radiation?


"It was a surgical cure," the surgeon explains.


"A surgical cure?" I ask, as if he's speaking a foreign language, still not wanting to accept that it was cancer.


"The surgery was the cure," he smiles wearily. "It was the best outcome we could hope for."


It's too much to take in; my mind shuts down. My daughter has to repeat the surgeon's instructions of where we should wait for my husband to be wheeled out of the recovery room.


While we wait by the surgery doors, they wheel out a man who's just had gall bladder surgery. He looks as bad as anyone can and still be alive. I am faint with apprehension. My daughter tells me to sit down. When they wheel out my husband, he's joking with the nurses, who are laughing and joking along with him. The smiles on the nurses' faces and their lighthearted mood lift the somberness of the moment. My husband looks so good to me.


Those next few days we cling to whatever humor we can find. On day two of his recovery, my husband wakes from his morphine sleep and points to a plant that has just been delivered to his room.


"Who's that from?" he asks.


"Your sister, Kathy," I tell him.


"Oh," he says, and goes back to sleep. And when he wakes hours later, he points to the plant again.


"Who's that from?"


My daughter and I exchange glances and smiles.


"Dad," she says, "it's from Aunt Kathy."


And he falls back to sleep.


Thanksgiving Day, my daughter and I sit in his room, while he dozes and wakes and we watch football games and nibble on the Thanksgiving dinner that he barely eats. And I think, it's going to be okay. He's going to be okay. It is enough for now. And I'm so very thankful.