This story is by Joyce Barbatti and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The monster that invaded our lives in 2012 didn’t hide under the bed, although it caused many sleepless, fear-filled nights. It wasn’t green and slimy but it did manifest itself in yellow, jaundiced eyes.
Like most monsters, it showed up completely unexpected and scared the crap out of us.
If only this monster could be defeated by a magic sword or disappear with the warm glow of a lamp to chase away the nightmare.
This monster was real. It was deadly, and its target was my beloved husband. We armed ourselves for the fight of our lives.
The monster showed up when we were enjoying the warm breezes of the tropics in the Florida Keys. Our relaxing winter getaway was interrupted by my concern over my husband’s yellowish eyes. Sitting on his lap on the rooftop patio of our rented home looking at the calm Atlantic, fear threatened to overtake me. We didn’t yet know what monster we were facing, but as the tears ran down my face, he reassured me saying, “No matter what it is, we know it’s not cancer.”
Famous last words.
At the beginning, we didn’t know much about this foe. We knew it was a serious combatant. Then, after a week of stressful, nerve-wracking tests to see where it had embedded its troops, I made the mistake of going online for more information.
Sometimes information isn’t helpful. It only feeds the monster’s major weapon–fear.
The monster that had silently crept into our lives was pancreatic cancer. It infected my husband, Tom’s body like an invading adversary.
There were plenty of good guys on our side–the top-rated surgeon at St. Mary’s Rochester, oncologists at University of Wisconsin, University of Iowa, and M.D. Anderson. There were many highly competent, caring oncology nurses who wanted nearly as passionately as we did to rid us of the monster. There were prayer warriors, some of whom we didn’t even know, sending pleas heavenward every day on our behalf. Even Tom’s overall good health and dedicated exercise routine were allies.
And still, we were in combat. We were drafted into a war in which we didn’t ask to participate, and like the bravest, most committed Marines, we would fight side by side with everything we had in us.
I hated this monster with my very soul.
I hated the disruption of our happy lives. I hated the uncertainty and anxiety of scan days and blood tests wondering if it was still active and where it might show up next.
I hated how it hurt my husband even though he was tough and strong.
I hated the hours of sitting in waiting rooms or chemo suites while the rest of the world went about their business carefree and taking for granted their “normal” lives.
I hated the whispers it spoke to me in the middle of the night. “You know the odds…”. Or the treason of my own doubts saying “what if…?” What if the chemo stops working? What if it spreads? What if there aren’t any more treatment options? What if the unimaginable happens?
I hated how it caused others to look at us with pity or how we became the topic of the latest gossip. “I heard they got a bad report.” “I heard he’s not doing very well.”
Through it all we refused to let the monster define us. It changed our routine with chemo treatments every other week, but we refused to give in.
In fact, it drew us closer to one another, deepened our already strong love, gave us perspective on life that healthy individuals bottle up deep inside not wanting to acknowledge their mortality.
We traveled and played golf. We cherished every moment of every day. Each night, my husband would say, “Today was a good day.”
I learned to control my thoughts focusing on just the present. The worst days were when the monster’s spies would invade my mind and draw me far into the unknown future.
Our oncologist never lied to us, always saying the goal was to extend Tom’s life as long as possible. Isn’t that really what any of us want? He admitted a reverence for my husband he normally doesn’t allow himself with patients.
For several years we were blessed to drive the monster back into the shadows. The poisons were causing retreat. We celebrated those victories but, like a wise commanding officer, knew they were just battles, not the war.
We explored additional methods of warfare—complimentary treatments including touch therapy, homeopathic supplements, exercise and diet regimens. We switched up the combinations of drugs keeping the enemy off guard. We microwave ablated one stubborn encampment on the liver.
For a while, there was a cease fire in the war. The enemy had fully retreated.
But it was only reinforcing the troops. The monster came back with a vengeance in the summer of 2016. It attacked lungs and even more critically, the spine.
And still we fought. We began radiation. We explored clinical trials. We looked forward to potential immunotherapy.
The monster had too much strength. Its regiment was reinforced with too many soldiers. It ate through the T1 vertebrae causing loss of feeling in Tom’s hands. It threw monkey wrench concerns of losing total mobility at us to distract us and pull our defenses onto multiple fields of battle. We had to stop treatment to shore up the vertebrae with neck surgery.
The enemy continued to attack on multiple fronts. Like battalions sensing opportunities, it invaded the hips and pelvis. It took advantage of the recovery period after the surgery to continue to charge forward.
In October 2016, the monster took my husband’s life.
I still detest this monster. I detest the PTSD-like fog of war that I experience daily when I wake up and don’t know what day it is or if the strange dreams of the night before were reality or if the empty place beside me in bed is the reality. Neither one is what I want.
People ask me if I’m lonely. I imagine it’s like asking an amputee how it feels to not have a limb. I’m not lonely. I miss Tom. There is a big difference.
And like that amputee, there is no true, complete “healing”. I’m learning to live a life I didn’t want and that will never be the same again.
However, I’ve learned the only thing, the most powerful weapon that overcomes fear and death is love.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. We found that to be true in our war against our monster.
Throughout our battle, my husband’s faith in the Lord was restored and strengthened beyond anything he had experienced previously in his life. He spoke openly to others in their own battles offering encouragement and prayers and hope beyond this life and these monsters.
I continue his work through mentoring others who are fighting this monster. Good guys are always needed in this fight. I don’t need to let them know how deadly the monster is, but I can encourage. I can offer wisdom from our experience and pray and listen to stories of their war. I can be there when the monster attacks with renewed vigor and violence and give them support as one veteran who has seen combat offers to another.
The monster thinks it won the war. It won the physical, earthly war, but it convinced me more than anything else ever could that this life is not the end. The monster will lose its power in the true end. It may claim more victims, but I have the assurance that one day all disease will be gone. Our bodies will be made new. Our tears will be wiped away.
And cancer and death cannot ever touch us again. Ever.
The monster will finally be defeated.
Until then, the battle rages.