The thing about cancer is it taunts you. It gives you hope, then dashes it. It gives you a reason to celebrate, followed by a reason to be so goddamn mad you want to hit something. It gives you a sense of security only to smash it with an overwhelming fear that you can’t win, that you are going to lose something very important.
The first few months of 2004 flew by. Joanie’s calendar was as full as it had ever been. Her job at the Hoeven Committee was keeping her busy, and focused. She was also heavily involved in the building project at Trinity Lutheran, and many of those meetings took place at the end of an otherwise full day at her office. She was reveling in it all, and it was like last year never even happened.
It was during this time we reached a milestone regarding the colostomy. I was still changing it for her whenever it had to be changed, and from time to time would kindly prompt her to think about doing it herself, in case when she was gone, or I was gone, and it needed to be done, she could handle it herself. I had shown her how to do it, and knew she could if she had to, but it was still always me that changed it for her. I didn’t mind, and I got so good at it, I could get it done in under four minutes from start to finish.
The milestone came in late February, when I was in Minneapolis for a few days at the Great Minnesota Golf Show. I was there helping to man the booth promoting the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail, which was my baby. I left on Thursday, and would return on Monday. On the way back on Sunday, I was going to stop overnight at my sister Joni’s place in Avon, and then get back to Bismarck on Monday.
On my way to Avon that afternoon, I stopped in Clearwater to see an old friend, Red Ridgeway, and we went to the Legion Club to have a beer, and he could have a cigar. While Red was away from the bar, I got a call from Joanie, and was wondering what was going on. She told me the colostomy had started leaking. I immediately became alarmed, and here I was about five and half hours away. She let me stew for just a minute, and then she told me quite proudly she had changed it herself, and everything was fine. I could see the smile on her face from where I sat. I told her she was wonderful, and that I knew she could do it, and I was proud of her. It put a big smile on my face too. I called her later that night, and talked to her again about it. Amazing how something like that can mean so much. However, despite her demonstrated ability to change it, that duty remained for me. I didn’t mind.
The CT scan on March 29th, came out negative, with no evidence of disease present. Another sign of something positive. We both knew the cloud was still there, but there seemed to be a silver lining every time we got news like that. Joanie was living her life as if the cloud wasn’t there, just like we had talked about so long ago on that night in February of 1998.
On April 14th, however, the cloud grew darker, and more ominous, when Joanie had a Pap smear at the clinic, and they found cancer again. We were stunned, as we had been before, and the news was disheartening after all of the promise of what we thought was a successful chemo treatment, and Dr. Carson’s own optimism in December and early January.
The way we figured, this was the third time it had come back since she was diagnosed in May, 1996, and now we were really had to deal with the question of had it ever really been gone at all, or was it just hiding after every treatment waiting to surface again when it could do the most emotional or psychological damage to Joanie. The other question we now had to consider, was would she ever be rid of it completely. We had no good answer to that question either.
To her credit, Joanie wouldn’t consider those questions. Her attitude was now more resolute than ever. She was going to win this battle, and she was going to do it on her terms.
My job, as a caregiver, was to keep my anger and fear to myself, and to reinforce Joanie’s positive attitude whenever I had a chance. There were times when I was alone and I used to wonder if she wasn’t as worried about me as she was herself. She never let on, and I never pressed her on what she was thinking during those times when we would get the news of a setback, news that would bring back all of the fear and confusion and uncertainty we’d been living with for what seemed such a long time.
We went down to see Dr. Carson in mid-May, to get an explanation about what was going on right then. When we got there, Carson said the Pap was positive for cancer, and she thought it involved the upper vagina, and she wanted to do surgery the next day to remove that portion of the neovagina where the mass was located. She seemed to be confident that this area was the only problem, which gave us a slim glimmer of hope to hang on to.
The next day, we checked her in, and were taken to the pre-op area, expecting much the same place we had been in before, but since the last time she had surgery they had made some changes, and the pre-op wasn’t as open, cool and noisy as it had been those other times. They had curtained off areas for each patient, and the noise level was significantly reduced, which help give the illusion of confident calmness. The routine was the same, the anesthesiologist came in to meet with Joanie, and he would be followed later by the nurse anesthetist, and she would explain her role, finally, Dr. Carson would stop by and give Joanie an idea of what was about to happen, and to present this procedure as basically an outpatient event, meaning after she had recovered she could leave the hospital. That last bit of news was enough to give her a lift, because right then, all she cared about was getting it over and getting back home.
Surgery went off fine, the offending mass was removed and sent to pathology for analysis, Joanie was brought to recovery, and after the affects of the anesthesia wore off, she was released. She had tolerated the procedure well, and had she had it her way, we would have got in the car and left for Bismarck right then.
The next day the cloud followed us back to Bismarck, but Joanie continued to focus on the silver lining. The way she figured, Carson had removed what needed to be removed, and when we were to go back in a few weeks, there might be a possibility of radiation to attack any left over problem from this recurrence. That would mean a visit with Katie Dusenbery and possible radiation, as well as Dr. Carson.
That she had the confidence she had in those two doctors really made it easy for her to look for a positive outcome. Her confidence even made it a bit easier for me to feel the same way, even though I wanted to hit something really bad.