In the Suburbs: It’s not the disease, it’s the word

The doctor’s call came while my wife and I were shopping in a Walmart in Virginia on Black Friday. The phone rang several times before my wife decided to take it. I watched as she walked over to a quiet spot, listened, shook her head several times and hung up.

“I knew I shouldn’t have taken that call,” my wife said, looking a little wistful and trying to force a smile. “It’s cancer, but the doctor wasn’t rushing me back to Connecticut. Of course, there will be surgery, but the doctor is setting up an oncology appointment for early December. Oh well. I’ve survived a brain aneurysm and a mild heart attack. Why not throw this at me to deal with?”

When my wife saw that I was kind of staring into space, she touched my arm and asked, “Are you all right?”

“I guess I am,” I said. “But I’m more concerned that you’re alright. Right now, I’m just trying to process all of this. I honestly think that the ‘word’ cancer threw me more than the diagnosis. It was just unexpected.”

On the way back to our hotel, my wife shared her suspicion that something was wrong right before the “routine” surgery she went through a week before we traveled. Some things were just not correcting themselves. She said she honestly considered not taking the call from the doctor.

We talked a lot during the remainder of the trip about the what ifs and how the surgery was weighing on our minds. We also wondered if things were still in the early stages or if the cancer had spread, creating a stage 2 or 3 situation.

Meanwhile, the word kept gnawing at me - cancer. I couldn’t help thinking of the Neil Simon play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and how the main character Eugene spoke about how people who had the disease or knew someone who had it always spoke in whispers in a familiar Brooklyn dialect — “She has cansa!”

For the rest of the weekend, my wife wanted to share nothing with our daughters and the rest of the family. She asked that I safeguard this secret because she didn’t want to be bombarded with phone calls.

I mustered as much strength as I could to meet her request, but found myself discreetly telling my wife’s brother and sister-in-law, who were with us in Virginia and just appreciated knowing, along with my niece who was visiting from Chicago. I also texted our close friend Roberta, because I knew she’d want to know. Of course, as the grapevine would have it, the day after we returned, Roberta checked in. She and my wife share information about their various physical conditions anyway, so I did not feel betrayed or saddened by Roberta’s genuine concern.

While I knew my wife wouldn’t be happy that I’d told some people, I needed to keep processing this unfamiliar C-word and all its unknowns. Sharing my feelings with family and friends somehow made grappling with this haunting word that much easier. My wife has always been a very private person about illnesses. But In this case, this secret was too much to bear alone.

Our meeting with the oncology surgeon came in early December and it really helped my wife and me feel more comfortable and optimistic. The surgeon was extremely reassuring and patient, explaining that the disease was not aggressive and was in very early stages. She saw no need to rush the surgery and explained that she doubted my wife would need any further treatment after surgery was over. What really impressed me was her offer to speak with either of our daughters if they had questions we couldn’t answer.

Next came the real pre-surgery hurdles. Before the procedure would even take place, my wife needed clearances from her cardiologist and a neurosurgeon, based on her brain aneurysm in 1986 and mild heart attack in 2014. My wife jokingly commented that she thought those evaluations would be a piece of cake. We left the surgeon’s offices with a tentative date of Jan. 14 for the surgery.

I decided not to even think about the surgery over the next five weeks so we could enjoy some peace and quiet over the holidays, but the year just seemed to end too quickly. All too soon my wife was in a whirlwind of tests, x-rays and evaluations. Fortunately, all of her tests and x-rays came back with excellent results. That included the COVID test, especially in this dangerous time of omicron. Thankfully surgery will be as planned this Friday and my only hope is that I will be allowed in the hospital, at least during my wife’s prep period.

Maybe it is the reality that this really is the week of surgery, but I still can’t help thinking about the C-word and the fact that no matter how optimistic I try to be, it continues to whisper in my ear, reminding me how one diagnosis impacted our lives permanently. After this Friday, if all is well, my wife will move from the category of “Cansa” patient to “Cansa” free. Then, I can hope that the dreaded C-word won’t haunt me again.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.