Thursday, November 16, 2017

His Last Breath: My Father's Battle With Lung Cancer

It rained the night before my father died. One of those warm summer rains that leaves the air more sticky and humid than it was before it started. 

It was still raining as I rushed to the hospital the next morning. I remember thinking my hair would be a disaster all day. A riot of big, frizzy curls.  

In hindsight, it seems such a bizarre, unimportant thing to be concerned about when you know your father is about to die. 
But already my brain was switching to self-defense mood. It needed to be elsewhere. 

Anywhere but signing his death paperwork and planning his funeral. Anywhere but saying goodbye. 

My father took his last raspy breaths just before I entered his hospital room. 
I paused briefly at the door. My brother Shawn, the first one to arrive, looked up at me, his grief-stricken face streaked with tears.

He didn't have to say a word.

I'd seen that same anguished look on the faces of my children three years earlier when I told them their father had been killed.

I was too late. My father was gone. 
I quickly crossed the room and placed my hand on his still warm cheek. With my other hand, I stroked his hair as his lungs exhaled their final breaths of air. 
I barely recognized the shell of the man left in the bed, his face sunken and hollow and contorted in death. 
The night before I had kissed him goodnight before I left. 
I love you, Daddy. 
He was so heavily medicated, I wasn't sure he'd heard me. 
"I love you too." 

Are you sure? I'd asked. 
"Yep, pretty sure. Night dear."  

My father's death was neither sudden nor unexpected. We had been anticipating it for several days beforehand.  

In truth, I'd been expecting it for months.  

And yet, that made it no less painful. 

My dad died of metastatic lung cancer. Seven months after he was diagnosed, he was gone. 

Last year, I knew nothing about lung cancer.  And now I know more about it than I ever wanted to know. Cancer has a sharp learning curve. Biopsies, thoracentesis, pleural effusion—it was so hard for me to keep all of the terms and procedures straight. The amount of information overwhelmed me. And I wasn't the one living with cancer; I can’t even begin to imagine how he felt.  

Late last fall he'd developed a cough he couldn't shake. He never told any of us about it though. It was no big deal. Just a cough.  

A retired industrial electrician and former smoker, my father had been cigarette free for almost a decade. It never occurred to him he had cancer. 
It never occurred to any of us he had cancer. 
In hindsight, we should have known something was wrong, long before he developed the cough. He hadn't been himself for months. He was always slightly grumpy (my kids even called him Grumpy), but over the previous year, he'd become withdrawn and irritable. It seemed like he was always complaining about something. 

"Your mother never listens to me."  

"Your mother can't remember a thing I tell her."  

Your mother this, your mother that. My poor mother couldn't seem to do anything right.  

We chalked it up to old age.  He’d turned seventy-five on his last birthday, and had definitely slowed down over the last couple of years. He didn’t seem to have the same energy he used too. But it wasn’t just old age, it was cancer. His fifty year, two-packs a day smoking habit finally caught up to him ten months ago when the cough first started. 

But really, it caught up to him long before that. He’d had a ticking time bomb in his lung for years and had no idea. 
My dad was dying long before we even knew he was ill. 
Last January, I'd sat beside him as the doctor gave him the results of his first biopsy. Non-small cell carcinoma; squamous cell carcinoma to be exact, the type of lung cancer most strongly linked with smoking. He had a tumour the size of an orange nestled against the membrane of his heart. Surgery was impossible; his only options were radiation, to shrink the tumour, and ease his symptoms, and chemotherapy to try to stop the cancer from spreading. 
And then the news went from bad to grim. Two more biopsies subsequently revealed he had a different type of cancer, adenocarcinoma, in his right lung. 
Concurrent primary malignancy.  

My Dad was living on borrowed time.  

His mood didn't improve after his diagnosis. He was angry—angry at the world, angry at cancer, angry at the health care system that was letting him down, angry at himself for ever having smoked in the first place.  

“Everyone else is making the decisions. It doesn’t matter what I say,” he’d grumbled to me after his last visit from the palliative care nurse.  

“I’m just a passenger along for the ride.”  

Yes, Dad and cancer was driving the car.  

He had every right to be angry.  

Cancer is such a cruel, merciless disease. My once strong father, who could haul lumber and logs effortlessly, was bedridden for the last six weeks of his life.  

Cancer robbed him of his breath and his strength, it took his dignity and then it took his life.  

He never made peace with his death. He clung to hope for a miracle cure, until the bitter end.  

For months, I silently watched my father die. I didn’t have the heart to tell him there would be no miracle, at least not for him. Hope was all he had left. And I couldn’t take that away from him.  

I knew he would never have chemo. His cancer was far too advanced, and he was far too weak. Chemotherapy would shorten his life, not lengthen it. 
At his last appointment, his oncologist explained to him why he couldn't have chemotherapy. She outlined the side effects of chemo as she told him how ill it would make him and then asked him what he thought.  

 “It sounds to me like I don’t want to have chemo." 
His shoulders slumped as he said it, his voice barely a whisper. He was exhausted. I knew he was nearing the end. I wondered if he knew it too.  

If he did, he never said it out loud. 

"We don't have to worry about that for quite a while yet," he told me, two weeks before he died.
He adamantly refused to speak of his death. 
The week before he died, my mother had to call the EMT's three times. The palliative care nurse called me the morning after the third visit and told me it was time, we had to move him to the hospital. At that point, my father was refusing to go. As his medical guardian, it was up to me to sign the papers. 
It was a position I'd never wanted to be in. I knew my father wanted to die at home, but I had to do what was best for him, and for my mother. 

Fortunately, I never had to sign those papers. By the time, I arrived, he had relented and agreed to go. On his terms, of course.  

"I'll go, but just for a week until I feel better. Remember what the doc said, I can come home whenever I feel up to it. A deal’s a deal. Right, Lib?" (Lib was his childhood nickname for me.)  

Right, Daddy.

He would never get to make that trip home.

He died the next day.
I started composing his eulogy in my head months before he died. 

"My father died of lung cancer. I would like to say he died after a courageous battle, but the truth is he never had a chance to fight. The war was over before the battle even started. Lung cancer was the victor, as it all too often tragically is.” 

The other day, as I was stopped at a stop sign, a man with his little girl crossed the crosswalk in front of me. She had dark curly hair and was talking a mile a minute. He held her little hand in his. With his other hand, he took a drag off of a cigarette. 

I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. She reminded me so much of a little girl I used to know. 

As I wiped away a tear, I couldn't help but wonder if she would be holding her father's hand in his doctor's office one day.  

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer for both men and women in Canada. Lung cancer kills more Canadians then breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer combined. Despite the large numbers of Canadians dying from lung cancer, lung cancer research is the least funded in the country. There are no national or provincial screening programs for high-risk populations. Partially because of this lack of screening, most lung cancer patients are diagnosed in late stages.
The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is a dismal 17%.
More than 85% of lung cancer cases in Canada are related to smoking tobacco. The risk of developing lung cancer increases with how lung you have smoked, how old you were when you started smoking and the number of cigarettes you smoke each day. The risk is also higher if you smoke tobacco and have other risk factors such as exposure to asbestos, radon, certain chemicals, and air pollution.
For more information on lung cancer and lung cancer prevention please see the Canadian Cancer Society

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Home is Where Your Story Begins

My house went on the market a few days ago.
Not surprisingly, after I posted the picture of my For Sale sign, I received a lot of messages. And questions.
"What? Why are you selling your house?"
The answer is actually pretty simple.
And no, it's not because I enjoy moving that much. Moving is a colossal pain in the ass. And house selling and buying is never not stressful, even when it's your own choice.
In fact, I would argue it's in many ways more stressful (and expensive) when you choose to move instead of having the army tell you where and when to move.
Because this time it's entirely my decision, I have no one to blame but myself if it doesn't work out (but it will).
It's all on my shoulders.
Fortunately, I've built a lot of upper body strength in the last few years.
I decided to move for a very simple reason: I'm not actually where I want to be.
I live in a beautiful house, on a beautiful street in a beautiful neighbourhood in a beautiful town.
It's just not the right town.
It's also a retirement/university town. Half of the population is under the age of twenty-two, the other half over the age of seventy-two. And then there's me, the monkey in the middle.
When Dan died, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to be. I just knew I couldn't stay in Petawawa.
Before he deployed to Afghanistan, we decided if anything happened to him, the kids and I would move home. So that's what we did.
But you can never really go home. Because home is not the same, and neither are you.
When I left Nova Scotia, I was a twenty-two-year-old bride embarking on my life's adventure with my new husband. I was so young back then, and so naive.
I had absolutely no idea what life had in store for me, good or bad.
I came back home, alone as a forty-three-year-old widow. I was not so young. And I was definitely not naive.
I still have absolutely no idea what life has in store for me. But I do know that whatever it is, I'm strong enough to make it through it.
I've always wanted a barn red house in Nova Scotia, it was my maybe sometime-years-down the road daydream.
I had no idea that I would actually get that house or that it would come at such a steep price.
Perhaps what they say is true.
Be careful what you wish for.
I will never regret the decision to move home. I think in many ways I needed to be here to know this was not where I wanted to be.
It was a good place for my girls to finish high school.
I was here when my Mom and Dad needed me the most. I was here when my Dad died.
And it was the right place for me to figure out just who I am. And where I want to be.
Deciding to move is not a decision I took lightly or made quickly. It was one that was gradually made with much introspection over many walks over many months.
I am not unhappy in Nova Scotia, but I will be if I stay here alone after Katherine leaves for university.
The reality is my children will never live in Nova Scotia. And neither will my closest friends.
Ottawa offers me the opportunity to be nearer to both.
And it is the geographically perfect place for me to grow professionally.
The Annapolis Valley is beautiful, it will always be one of my homes.
But there is so much more life waiting to be lived, a new story waiting to be written on the other side of these hills.
It's time for me to start writing the next part of my story.
My life is my story. And I intend to write it well.
In a lovely office in a beautiful house on a beautiful street in a beautiful neighbourhood in Ottawa.
But not a barn red house, I've been there done that.
I'm thinking dark blue this time.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Poppies and Christmas

It's as inevitable as the leaves falling off the trees.

As soon as the calendar turns to November 1 the argument begins.

And neighbours will start telling their neighbours that they shouldn't decorate for Christmas before Remembrance Day because it's disrespectful to our Veterans.

And soon my Facebook feed will be filled with more vitriol about decorations than it will be about the people we should be remembering.

And that makes me incredibly sad.

I honestly don't remember when this became a thing.

And I certainly don't understand why it became a thing.

Because one has nothing to do with the other.

People who decorate for Christmas before November 11 don't do so to be disrespectful.

And we should never assume they are.

As a military widow (and mother) I don't care when anyone puts up Christmas lights.

I care if they wear a Poppy and donate to the Poppy Fund.

I care that they take the time to stop and Remember my husband and all the others who have given their lives and all those who still serve.

As my friend, a 93-year-old WW2 Vet says,

"Wasn't that the point of it all anyway? So we could live in a country where people could put their damn lights up whenever they choose."

Decorate or don't decorate.

The choice is yours.

Because it's not about the decorations. Or lights or Christmas music or peppermint flavoured coffee.

It never was.

It's about them.

They are what really matters.

Remember them.

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