It Isn’t Just About Cancer

By Margaret Phalor Barnhart

That year, 1987, was my youngest son’s senior year of high school — his year of celebration and I was now stealing the spotlight. The surgery to remove my breast took place at our small town hospital in March. Erich came to visit and nearly passed out. I don’t know what part of me, in that hospital bed, caused his reaction. I watched his face turn white and his eyes begin to roll. I felt sad that I caused his discomfort.

The surgeon explained that the malignant lump was encased in a cyst, making it easy for him to scoop out. He said he was sure that by removing the breast I would not need further treatment. That was really good news. With five weeks left of my six-week leave from work, I studied the multitude of books stacked on shelves, unread, and knew this would be my opportunity. My work as an elementary school counselor was on hold.

Headed home at the end of the week, I felt intense pain but was upbeat with the knowledge that once healed I could return to work. Life would get back to normal. The next week my oldest son asked if he could come home from college for a while. He had been diagnosed with “the kissing disease,” Mononucleosis. He laid on one sofa, I the other. We did not kiss!

A few days later I received a call from my doctor telling me he was referring me to another doctor in the practice — the one who handles cancer patients. Why? I was healing and the surgeon said he “got it all.” My new doctor explained that the type of cancer removed with my breast was an aggressive form and he was recommending six months of chemotherapy. He said I would be taking medication by pills every day and by IV every other week. If he gave me the IV drugs on Friday I would have two days to crash and be ready for work on Monday. In my innocence I believed him and took the stance that I would continue working to prove to him that I was tough. That would ultimately become fallacy as my strength dwindled.

Upset about the “treatment plan” I sat at the dining room table working on a puzzle. Erich, my youngest son walked by and I asked him to join me. Through my tears I told him about the decision for chemo and reassured him that I didn’t intend to die of cancer. He brought a smile to my face as he jokingly said, “You’ll probably get hit by a car on the way to your last chemo treatment!”

In June I watched my youngest son receive his high school diploma. The wig I wore was a constant reminder of cancer and it made my head hot. My emotions of pride and fear tumbled about. July was the month Erich’s chosen college conducted a “Parent’s Weekend.” I was there, but don’t ask me any details. The chemo fog had taken over.

The first week of September came and my husband and I moved our son into the dorm. Awkwardly we asked if he wanted us to make the bed or unpack the boxes and suitcases. A brief pause told us it was time to leave. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as we walked away. Would I live to see him graduate from college? Would cancer prevent me from following him into his new world?

September was a month of great conflict. I was down to two remaining IVs. The daily dose of pills continued. Since March I had expected the chemo drugs to have less impact as time passed but I was wrong. Each day led to greater weakness.

My job as an elementary school counselor had been held for me and I thought returning to work would boost my spirits and help me focus on events outside of my body. However, after lunch I would find myself fatigued to the point of needing to lie down. The floor of my office was the only option — with the door closed. I felt guilty, as though I were cheating the children and teachers. My vision blurred after my noon pills and I was no longer a safe driver when making home visits or leaving at the end of the day.

On Wednesdays I stayed home to rest — the body that is. My mind was filled with abnormal energy that caused me to feel anxious, inadequate, guilty, angry, nervous and depressed. There were no substitutes for my position so when I stayed home the work piled higher. My body had abandoned me. Legs weak, eyes blurred, and newly developing hearing loss made classroom discussions far below my standards. I completed the school year but felt no satisfaction.

Over the years I have wondered how I would react to another bout of cancer. It hasn’t happened in 26 years and even though I am now retired, these are the choices I would make based on prior experience:

  • Rest is necessary with no need to feel guilty.
  • Alternative therapies, along with the medical community, are beneficial.
  • Others offer to help. I would accept their help and be specific about my needs.
  • Cancer does not suddenly appear in isolation. It intrudes into your life and demands attention. I need to look at it and adjust my activity as energy allows.
  • It is important to establish priorities.
  • Doctors do not know everything. I am a consultant in the process.

It isn’t just about cancer. Cancer and its treatment rudely thrusts itself into an already occupied life. Relationships and daily tasks are pushed about and chaos occurs unless a great deal of space is made available for the disease. Cancer demands to be recognized and accommodated and I am the one who must give it the attention it demands.

About the Author:

Education: B.A. Elementary Education, M.A. Guidance Counseling, Master of Art Therapy Career: 17 years as a teacher and counselor, different locations in Ohio Married and raised two sons, traveled extensively, then divorced Married my masseur (20 years ago) who has been blind since age 10 Authored “Journey Unknown, Focusing on the Emotional Aspects of Cancer, Mastectomy and Chemotherapy” second edition. Available at Available at most book stores, online and e-books

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