It’s breast cancer awareness month. While people are walking, running and playing football for the cause, I would like to talk about another type of cancer. Lung Cancer. The following story is about my father’s struggle with the disease.
My father was one of those “big as life” people. When he entered a room, everyone knew him. “Hey, Dick! How’s it going?” “We’ll have to play a round of golf soon. Say hi to Annie.” He was a big man in stature with a bald head. When approached, many people often found him intimidating, and some also thought of him as a pro wrestler.
My father had been married to my mother for over 50 years when he began to experience some serious health issues.
First of all he experienced cancer in his blood called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was one of those cancers which upon the first chemo treatment it would more than likely go into remission. However, a year or two later, it would come back again with a more aggressive behavior which would require stronger chemo treatments.
My father successfully went through three rounds of chemo with his Lymphoma issue. Aside from being a bit tired, there were no other side effects. Upon a visit to his doctor for a checkup in May of 2006, the doctor noticed a cloudy, white mass in my father’s left lung. The doctor thought it was left over treatment from the chemo which was just finished the month prior so he disregarded it and let my father try to regain a normal life.
As it would happen, in August of that same year he began having difficulty breathing. I recall during this time that Medinah Country Club had their U.S. Open and my father would use a golf cart to marshall the golf courses. My father, who was a daily walker, would put on his ear buds and listen to his walking tapes to keep his quick cadence up to beat. I would often see him walking down the street in the early morning hours as I would travel on my way to work.
He began to notice that he couldn’t walk as fast as his usual cadence because he started to run out of breath quickly. At first he probably thought he didn’t sleep well the night before, or he was possibly coming down with a cold. Maybe it was allergies that were affecting him? At any rate, he knew that becoming out of breath so easily was not normal for him.
In September, my father went back to the doctor complaining of his weariness and difficulty breathing. After taking some x-rays, it was determined that my father had a mass the size of a softball in his left lung. It was lung cancer. Did he smoke? Yes. He started smoking when he was a teenager and quit cold turkey when he turned 42. He was now 73 years old.
When I heard the news, I immediately went over to my parent’s house which was only a few blocks away. I saw my father sitting in his chair in the den. Looking rather glum as well as worried, I sat down on the floor next to him and asked him, “Are you afraid?” He said, “You have to go sometime in life, honey. I just didn’t expect it to be now. I suppose I’m a little anxious about the thought of having lung cancer, but I’ll do my best to beat it.” I told him that if there is anything I could do to help him, aside from my prayers, I would gladly do it.
Needless to say, I was devastated. This man was my rock. I knew of no one who beat lung cancer. I believe in my heart of hearts that my father knew his days were numbered, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. That’s the way he always was; a fighter. Likewise, I would also be a fighter for my dad and help him try to beat this monster that was swallowing up his ability to breathe.
Since my mother was not physically able to take care of my dad and drive him to his various doctors, my sister and I would take turns driving him to get his lung drained, or get a checkup.
I’ll never forget the one visit that sealed my dad’s fate. I had been to a few visits where my dad had his lung drained of fluid caused by the cancer. They would take a rather thick needle, insert it into my father’s back and have the needle attached to a hose which, on the other end, landed into a two gallon glass container. When his lungs were draining, the fluid would be a light red color; similar to a dark pink rose. The entire jar would be filled up by the end of our visit. Needless to say, you can imagine how much better my father could breathe once two gallons of fluid were removed from his lung. This process was allowed to be done every two weeks. However, cancer has a nasty way of metastasizing, and one pocket of fluid would become three pockets of fluid upon the next visit. During this visit, I saw numerous pockets of fluid in his lung. The doctor can’t keep poking my dad’s back and draining all these pockets of fluid – it would be near impossible.
“We can’t drain your lungs anymore. The cancer has spread too much to puncture one area alone.” As the doctor spoke these words my father just sat there in silence. I had asked several questions of the doctor like, “what next?” What are the other options?” After the doctor left us, my father and I sat in silence together. I told him we could approach any of the options the doctor had said. However, I think my dad just wanted to embrace the fact that mortality was looking him in the face.
We used an electronic wheelchair, which was supposed to be used for my mom instead, to go from the hospital doors to the car. When we approached the car, and I opened up the doors to help him get inside, he said, “Please. Let me just sit here and breathe in the air.” I stood behind him silently while tears went down my face. I didn’t want him to see me cry because it would upset him and he already had a lot on his mind to deal with. So, we both closed our eyes and looked up into the bright afternoon blue sky. It was cold that day, but the air was crisp and fresh. He took several deep breaths with his eyes closed and inhaled as deeply as he could, savoring every bit of air he could take in. We both knew he was dying yet we didn’t say that word; death. It is that one syllable word that people fear rather than embrace. Frankly, no one wants to leave what they are comfortable with. This is your life. This is all you know. What lies after life is unknown. Needless to say, people are afraid of death. I would imagine my father was no exception but he never showed it.
Christmas that year, we did the best we could as a family to stay happy and enjoy the holiday. There were a few break downs during grace at the table for which my father had said a few words, leading to the fact that this would probably be his last Christmas with us.
And, as profound as his words were, two days after Christmas day, he was back in the hospital in the intensive care unit because he had fallen and hit his head on the ceramic tile floor. He passed out, and of course had struggles breathing on his own.
On December 29th, The doctor had an option to try one last type of surgery which my father wanted to do. Being the fighter he was, he would try anything to stay alive and beat this horrible disease which was robbing him of his ability to breathe. After the surgery, a day or two had passed and the doctor indicated that the procedure didn’t work as planned. My father was out of options to help him stay alive. We, as a family, were lost on hope.
A day or two after the surgery my father had trouble breathing. He had a DNR order, which would prohibit any type of breathing apparatus to help him breathe, but the nurses saw the panic in his face and put a breathing tube down his throat. A machine was now helping him breathe.
Knowing this was not what he wanted, yet he couldn’t speak, left my sister and I with the very difficult decision on what to do next. In my heart, I KNEW he could hear us. I told my sister, “Let’s try an experiment.” My sister got on one side of the bed and I on the other. We each held one of his hands and I said to my dad, “I want to know if you can hear us. If you can hear us, squeeze my hand.”
“Dad, we are going to ask you yes or no questions. Squeeze my hand for no. Don’t do anything for yes. Understand?”
There was no squeezing of my hand – he understood what we were saying.
My sister asked him if he was ready to let go. Did he still want to be on life support? He squeezed her hand.
We all breathed a sigh of relief. We had communicated with him in making the decision HE wanted. We didn’t have to guess what he wanted.
On January 1st, I went to the hospital early in the morning to visit with my dad and I literally broke down in tears pleading with him to not go. I got on the bed and laid next to him. I told him he was the best father a daughter could ask for. I told him that even though he felt he wasn’t there for “us girls” because he was traveling all the time that he was there when I needed him and that’s all that mattered to me. When I said that, I saw a slight opening of his eyes and I kissed him and said goodbye from our visit.
As the day went on, friends and family said their goodbyes and on January 2nd, my sister and I sat on either side of his bed exhausted just holding his hands. He was on morphine now. He probably didn’t even know we were there. With the breathing tube removed, his chest rose up and down with slow, long pauses.
My sister told me to go home and get some rest and indicated that she would call me if anything happened. I obliged. Frankly, I thought I would have trouble sleeping when I got home, but I my head fell right into my pillow. I still had my clothes on.
In the early morning hours on January 3rd, I was sound asleep. I heard a soft rustling next to my bed which brought me out of my sleep but I kept my eyes closed. I then felt what can only be described as a hand being planted firmly on my head – it was almost like someone was blessing me. I whispered, “I’ll be o.k. Dad.”
Twenty minutes later I received a phone call from my sister. My father had died.
A lot of tears were shed over the next several days, weeks, and months that followed. I still cry from time to time because I miss his smile and his big hugs. I miss his certainty and calmness. I miss his laugh.
Four months is all it took for cancer to take my father’s life away from me.
Four months is all it took to rob my father of enjoying more of his golden years.
Four months is all it took to kill a man who gave me life.
At any rate, I always remember my dad in a loving and humorous way. They say that when a loved one dies they never really leave your side. They are always with you.
My father will always be with me.