The itching was intense. My husband, Scott, said he understood the feeling of being attacked by all the fire ants in Texas. His liver panel was high, so his doctor sent him to a gastroenterologist who ordered an ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI. They revealed nothing.
The gastroenterologist hoped the problem would resolve naturally. Still, he wanted to send Scott to San Francisco for further testing. I asked if the benefits outweighed the risks.
“Oh yes,” he said gravely.
I had been told the tests would take several hours so I was surprised when my name was called an hour after Scott’s procedure began. My stomach clenched as a doctor led me into a closet-sized room and sat me down. “I didn’t need to do the second test,” he said. “During the endoscopic ultrasound, I found a mass blocking his bile duct.”
At the word mass, I tried not to think “tumor,” or worse, “cancer.” I swallowed hard and reminded myself to breathe.
The doctor’s face was taut, his brow furrowed. “Your husband needs surgery,” he explained. “I could send him home, but no one where you live performs this procedure. We have a pancreatic surgeon here. I’ve called him to come meet with you.”
I joined Scott in the recovery room and the surgeon came in minutes later. He seemed to care about Scott as a person, asking questions such as, “How long have you been married?”
“Not long enough,” Scott said. I squeezed his hand.
The surgeon tried to prepare us, though the truth was far beyond our grasp. I listened as if in a fog. “The surgery is called a Whipple, named after the doctor who invented it. It’s pretty involved. We’ll be removing part of the pancreas and bile duct, plus the duodenum and gallbladder. The digestive tract will be reconnected in three places. Recovery time in the hospital averages a few weeks. Full recovery takes at least three months.”
Good thing our daughter is home from college for the next month so she can take care of her younger brothers, I thought. There was no question of my leaving Scott alone.
The surgeon warned us not to look up pancreatic cancer. It would scare us, he said. He hoped the mass was a bile duct tumor that just happened to be located inside the pancreas.
Scott was admitted to the hospital. He called a local colleague, asking if he and his wife could put me up for the night. As I was feeling pretty shell-shocked and not up to navigating the unfamiliar streets, Scott’s friend picked me up and said he’d drop me off in the morning before Scott’s surgery.
Despite receiving a warm welcome, I didn’t sleep much at all. I tried listening to an audiobook but the fearful scenario playing in my head drowned it out. I might lose my husband — the man I’d been married to for 23 years, over half of my life — the father of our four children. What would I do without him?
At five a.m., I gave up trying to sleep and got up, took a shower, got dressed, sat, paced, walked upstairs to look for signs of my hosts being awake, walked back downstairs, paced, sat, and paced some more. After seven a.m., I began to hear footsteps above. I was eager to leave, but my attentive host insisted on getting me something to eat.
“I think I just need to get to the hospital,” I told him. It was seven-fifteen and Scott’s surgery was tentatively scheduled for seven-thirty.
When we finally pulled up in front of the hospital, I said a hasty thank you and jumped out of the car. I ran through the double doors, across the lobby to the elevator, and along the maze of halls to Scott’s sixth floor room. The curtains were pulled around the bed and I looked in. His bed was empty.
Panicking now, I went to the nurses’ station. “I’m looking for my husband, Scott Robertson?”
“They took him to O.R.”
I ran back through the halls and took the elevator down to the third floor. I peeked past curtained doors as I made my way along the wide empty hallway. Spotting a nurse, I said, “I’m looking for my husband.”
“Is that him in there?” she asked.
I almost didn’t recognize the man in the green hospital gown and surgical cap, slumped in a wheelchair deep inside a cavernous room.
I ran to him.
“I wouldn’t let them take me in until you got here,” he said. Tears welled up in his eyes. “I love you,” we both said with a gentle hug and kiss. When they wheeled him into the operating room, I forced myself to not look back.
“I’ll call you if it goes longer than four hours,” said the nurse.
“Is that how long it will take?”
“It’s a general guideline. Now, don’t stay in the hospital,” she said, leading me to the elevator. “Go get breakfast. You’ll find lots of restaurants and shops down the block.”
I nodded numbly.
She put her arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t worry. He’s in the best of hands.”
“Thank you.” I backed into the elevator.
I left the hospital and walked around the neighborhood, first stepping into a coffee shop. I sat with my latte, gazing out the window, choking back sobs. Someone sat down in the chair next to mine, only to get up and move.
“Crying in a coffee shop is not cool,” I texted my daughter.
Somehow I passed the time, meandering in and out of shops, up and down unfamiliar city blocks. Four hours passed. The nurse called. “Scott is doing well. It will be another few hours.” A few hours later, I received an identical call.
I struck up a conversation with a shop proprietor. I was concerned that my phone battery was dying. She let me use her personal charger and asked if I’d watch her shop while she walked her dog. This was the first of many kindnesses I received from strangers, showing me I was not alone.
Seven and a half hours later, I got the call I’d been waiting for. Scott was out of surgery and his surgeon was waiting to talk to me in the lobby. I ran to the hospital, breathing heavily as I greeted the doctor. Scott had come through the surgery well, he said, but we’d have to wait for the pathology report to know more.
When could I see him and could I stay with him? I wanted to know.
The surgeon said it would be up to the nurses.
“Then I’d better go befriend some nurses,” I said. And I did. They set up a cot for me next to Scott’s bed and even ordered me some dinner.
By the grace of God, I didn’t experience any squeamishness from seeing tubes running in and out of my husband’s body, a ten-inch scar bisecting his abdomen. I just saw the man I loved. I told myself I wouldn’t cry in front of him unless we cried together.
He’s alive—I can work with that, I thought.
A week post-surgery, the surgeon brought the pathology report. He was sorry to tell us that it confirmed pancreatic cancer. The tumor was attached to a major artery; he had shaved it down as much as possible, but could not remove it all. He’d inserted clips to guide future radiation.
It wasn’t the first time our family had heard the word “cancer.”
Years before, when our neighbor’s dog had puppies, Scott kept telling the kids, no, they couldn’t have one. Then, while visiting the neighbors, one of the puppies crawled onto Scott’s lap and fell asleep. His resistance melted. She was ours.
We named our new puppy Rachel, and never was a new baby greeted with more fanfare. Soon our home was littered with all manner of puppy paraphernalia. At her first check-up, the vet found a lump in Rachel’s mouth and had it biopsied.
Little Rachel was diagnosed with cancer at only twelve weeks old.
Scott took her to a veterinary oncologist and surgeon but they could offer little hope. The cancer had already spread to her bones. Surgery would possibly prolong her life, but it would involve removing her jawbone and part of her sinus cavity. That didn’t sound like much of a life for a playful puppy.
As Rachel wasn’t bothered by the growth, we decided to give her as much love as we could until she showed signs of pain. Then we’d do what we knew we must to put her out of her misery.
Weeks later, Rachel’s eyes were bloodshot and her tumor’s growth had caused her gum to open up and bleed. I took her to our vet’s office. It was the first and only time I saw this particular vet; she was a friend from my homeschool support group who just happened to be filling in that day.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked.
“In an older dog with these signs, they usually have about six weeks,” she told me. Then she added the words that I would hold onto in the days to come, “But I am not God.”
I took little Rachel home and prayed for her healing more fervently than ever. The kids had never stopped praying. Even our neighbor, who didn’t strike me as a praying man, was holding out for a miracle.
There were no more distressing symptoms. After a few weeks passed, we started to ask each other, “Is it my imagination, or is that tumor getting smaller?” A few months later, the tumor wasn’t evident at all.
“It’s a miracle,” a vet confirmed.
There was no evidence of cancer in any further exams. Rachel’s teeth came in where the tumor had once been and she grew into the beautiful, healthy dog we still have today, eight years later.
When Scott heard he had cancer, he changed his Facebook profile picture to a photo of Rachel.
Now Scott says that getting cancer has been the healthiest thing he’s ever done. He lost fifty pounds, causing his blood pressure to go down to normal and his sleep apnea to go away. The hospital neurologist offered him Botox injections for chronic migraine, which eliminated most of the chronic pain he’d struggled with for 30 years. His “vacation” from work allowed us to spend cherished time together and we’ve grown closer than ever. We even took his dream trip to his birthplace in Wales.
Nine months to the day after that first trip to the hospital, we went to Scott’s final chemo appointment. Survival statistics are still grim, but Scott refuses to be a statistic.
It’s hard not to try to predict the future or to prepare for the worst, but living in fear about tomorrow would rob me of the joy I have today. With our healthy, happy dog as a daily reminder of the power of prayer, I choose to live in gratitude and hope – remembering the five words that restored my hope about Rachel’s prognosis all those years ago, “But I am not God.”