How we got to where we were on that day in May.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a guy, I was totally, ignorant of women’s health issues at the time Joanie was diagnosed, even though a younger sister of mine, Judy, died from cervical cancer at age 42 in 1984, and my mother Marie, died from uterine cancer in 1987. Like most men, I either didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, and chose to let that kind of information remain the province of a woman and her doctor.
Little did I know what affect the shockwave that came from those two words on that May morning would have on my ignorance. Little did I know what I would learn, as a nonprofessional, from research, experience and dealing with doctors, nurses and helping someone who has a life-threatening disease. Little did I know, that as a reporter, someday I might be writing this story.
Now then, the beginning. In mid-April of 1996, when Joanie began to be experience some vaginal bleeding I asked her what was going on, figuring she would certainly know. She told me it was nothing, it was just something associated with her menstrual cycle, and it would be fine. I thought okay, again assuming that if she didn’t think it was abnormal, how was I to know. Here I thought she knew more than I did.
I didn’t know then, it was not the first time she had experienced the bleeding, and wouldn’t be the last. She just hadn’t told me about the other times. It happened again, and then it happened again, and I began to realize there was something going on more than just a “minor problem” with her menstrual cycle.
I began to insist that she make an appointment with her gynecologist. Then I found out she didn’t have a regular gynecologist, and, in fact, hadn’t seen a doctor for anything at all in the sixteen years I had known her. I was only to learn when we met with her doctor that she hadn’t had a Pap smear since 1976, and that was the only one she had ever had. That was something that I think weighed on her, and it revealed itself with a tell tale sign when she was sitting in our living room with some of her supportive women friends, and, as she tried to put a good face on her situation, reminded them to be sure and get their Paps.
Joanie would always tell me how she hated going to doctors, and I assumed that was because she was in excellent health, which she was, up to that point. Looking back later I realized that she had a better idea of what was going on than she was willing to share with me, and she was putting off going to a doctor because she was afraid what would be found if she did. I realized later that she didn’t want to know. Upon reflection, I don’t think she was unique in that respect from most of us. She avoided calling, even after my repeated questions of when she had an appointment. Some of her women friends had been after her to get an appointment as well.
She finally did call after an incident in late April over one noon hour when she came home from her office because of another bleeding incident. Before she could go back to her office, I handed her the phone and had her make an appointment right then. The appointment was to be for some time mid-May, however, she made no point of telling anyone she’d like to be seen any earlier, or exactly why she needed to be seen at all. I relaxed somewhat, knowing that at least she was going to see a doctor, and we’d know what was going on.
Things seemed to be going along fine, until Saturday, May 4th, when we had gone to Fargo for my niece’s wedding. While we were at the motel changing clothes she began bleeding, and it seemed to be more than ever before. She was visibly upset, and I began to realize that what she called a “minor problem” with her menstrual cycle was far more serious than even I had thought. My reaction was to go the emergency room, and failing that, if the bleeding stopped, to get back in the car and return to Bismarck. The bleeding did stop, but she would have none of either going to the emergency room or returning home. The rest of the evening and the next day were uneventful. Joanie had a good time at the wedding reception that evening, and it was as if the episode that afternoon had never happened. On the way back to Bismarck the next day, she said nothing about it.
Come Monday, I was no longer willing to wait for her appointment in mid-May, and called her doctor’s office. Talking to the doctor’s nurse that morning, I told her about the bleeding and impressed on her the need for someone to see Joanie as soon as possible, and it ought not to wait. The nurse told me to bring her in the next day.
I called Joanie and told her the appointment had been moved. She didn’t object, and somehow seemed a bit relieved, now that the issue had been forced. What I learned by calling her doctor’s nurse that day was that there are times when you must act because the patient, for whatever reason, cannot or will not. It was to be an important lesson.
So with that Tuesday, just three days shy of her 46th birthday, we began an incredible journey with cancer as our constant traveling companion for the next 12 years.