There was just no good day to die. As a mother of three kids between the ages of six and eleven, I simply didn’t have time for it. My to-do list is always full and rarely finished. Where would I fit die young into my busy schedule, somewhere between drive Zach to football practice and wash the dog? Or, maybe just after share wisdom about middle-school boys with my daughter, Jordan, or before I get up in the night with a frightened first grader?
Sure, I could take housecleaning and grocery shopping off the list to make room, but who’d want to miss kissing tears and reading stories? I mean this is the stuff of life. My life.
At least it was, until death began stalking me weeks before I gave birth to our third child, Brandon, and then kept at it for six long years.
It started when I complained of chest cramps to my obstetrician and he rather dully explained that there was “no need to worry,” and that I was probably just “carrying the baby high.” I didn’t know a high-riding baby caused pain in the collarbones and heart during pregnancy!
Turns out, it doesn’t and shortly after giving birth, at age 31, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer. Cancer and Brandon had grown in me at the same time. Unable to support both, my body surrendered Brandon several weeks before he was due. He was underweight by nearly three pounds—his chin and torso lacking the normal fatty folds of a newborn. While he wailed and cried, the nurses examined him: every finger and every toe were present and accounted for. He was fine!
We took Brandon home to fatten him up and he began to flourish.
But those chest cramps I had complained about weeks ago? Those had been caused by a giant tumor that was perched right over my unborn son during pregnancy. The hormones my body generated to grow my baby had also grown a brick-sized tumor in my body. By the time I saw an oncologist, he looked at my beleaguered husband and then squarely at me and said, “You have the biggest tumor I’ve ever seen. You’ll need to begin chemotherapy tomorrow. Without immediate intervention, you have four weeks to live. I will order the most aggressive regimen that exists. Hopefully we can save you.”
Cancer was a pit with a trapdoor. Once you think you’ve experienced the worst and hit the bottom, a new kind of low opens up just to suck you further down.
(Above, writer Cindy Finch with her son, Brandon, after chemotherapy. Photo courtesy of Cindy Finch).
On good days I could walk, talk and hold a baby. I needed loads of rest, but I was dutifully “fighting cancer” with optimism, prayer, friends and family by my side while marching at a steady pace through the labyrinth of treatments. On bad days, I couldn’t walk to my own mailbox, I was racked by a sweaty, shivering cold, I was unable to breathe on my own and I cried for hours at a time about how my life had jumped the tracks.
Even when there was good news, like my blood counts were up, or that chemo was almost over; the lows were stronger. Once during chemo, I had to have emergency procedures done to my heart without the aid of anesthesia because my blood pressure was too low.
Another time an attending physician in the ER took one look at me and the life-threatening fluid building up in my chest and immediately cut me open with a scalpel and shoved a drainage hose into my chest while I screamed.
My husband, Darin, stood steel-faced at the foot of my gurney, his hands clamped on my feet. No one pushed him out; they were too busy. All I remembered was the restraint of the medical staff and the sear of the cut and the flood of the fluid and Darin’s face red and wet and his hands holding me warm and tight.
Cancer was a pit with a trapdoor.
Another time, I collapsed on the floor of our bedroom because I couldn’t breathe and my husband had to lift my crumpled body off the floor and rush me back to the hospital I had just left. A mistake by the dismissing physician the night before had made me vulnerable to an internal lung collapse.
That night and many other nights like it, my husband and I would lie sobbing in one another’s arms until no more tears would come. Life felt cruel.
Radiation was worse than chemo. While chemo was once every week for 13 weeks, radiation took a daily toll that cut me down to my core. Near the end of my radiation treatment, I was in the ICU with the lower part of my face covered in blisters, my lips blue from low oxygen intake and I had a wicked case of radiation pneumonitis. Something like a nuclear holocaust had gone off in my chest during radiation.
When radiation treatment was over, I began the process of trying to “survive cancer.”
Surviving began with a distinct exhaustion and a sense of rolling despair. Because I remained in a state of deep shock over what happened and carried severe stress about what bad things might happen next, my mind took some time to come back together after cancer. I panicked at night when I felt the slightest cramp in my chest. I cried when Darin went to work, afraid that I would have a problem and he wouldn’t be able to get to me. When a doctor’s appointment was on the horizon, I broke out in a cold sweat with racing thoughts and nightmares. My body had been treated, but not my mind.
Nonetheless, I still remained anchored in the deep and abiding companionship of my husband and the grip of Grace that accompanied me during this ordeal.
The presence of Grace was comforting and helpful and I felt nonetheless loved by God through all of this… even when I yelled and screamed at Him, which was more and more a part of my life. My years as a student of my faith left me knowing that there must be a bigger plan at work in my life. And what seemed to comfort me even more was the delightful realization that God had quite possibly thrown some clothes on and changed his name to Darin and was watching over me right in my own house. Me, God and Darin. The A-Team. Alright, survive cancer – check!
With the A-Team in place and some fortifying grace guiding us, I was able to escape the pit. One foot in front of the other, and after nearly a year of treatments, we began to reclaim our lives.
By year one of remission, I was able to walk, talk and brush my short, new hair. By year two, I had resumed most of my regular duties. By year three, cancer had removed itself from the driver’s seat of my car and it now resided in the trunk. Aware, but no longer impressed by my stalker, I completed a 50-mile bike ride with my best friend Jana at year four.
To commemorate year five of living cancer-free, I competed in a triathlon with two close friends. One hundred people joined us for an after party at our house as we celebrated my complete remission from cancer.
A month later I found myself with a cough I couldn’t shake, lungs that had suddenly given up their athletic status and chest pain that crushed me. I was engorged with more than 30 pounds of runaway fluid.
Confounded by my symptoms and puzzled by my internal collapse, doctor after doctor shook their heads and passed me on. Was the cancer back?
I was shuffled in and out of three states for medical care. A parade of specialists checked on me in the first hospital before sending me home with an oxygen tank and an untreated liver problem that was causing my belly to swell up like I was five months pregnant. At the next, more specialized out-of-state hospital, the specialists kept poking and prodding while my condition worsened. I had now developed pulmonary embolism and pneumonia and could neither stand nor breathe on my own.
My kids called me every day on the phone and I held back the tears until the calls were over. I would lie on my side and sob while cringing at what was next for me, for us. The rollercoaster of traumatic illness seemed to rock and smack me at break-neck speeds while a mystery lived inside my body.
Finally, after daily in-patient tests, scans and biopsies one senior physician said, “We just have no idea what is wrong with you. It appears that you have congestive heart, liver and lung failure, but we don’t know why. You may just spontaneously get better or we may need to begin hospice care. We do not know. Go home; come back tomorrow and next week for more tests. Here’s a wheelchair and an oxygen tank. Goodbye.”
I had just turned 37.
That night, Darin and I planned my funeral. If my body did not gain some traction and begin to “spontaneously recover” as the doctor had said, we wanted to be ready for whatever was next just so we could feel like we had a bit of control. Sobbing and clinging to one another like stunned victims of a horrendous crime, we laid out the When-Cindy-dies-and-Darin’s-left-to raise-three-kids-alone plan.It included things such as financial plans, funeral ideas, instructions for other family members, what the kids liked and disliked. The plan seemed inadequate, like I was sending the kids away for a summer with grandma and grandpa. I felt like such a traitor to my family.
After bedtime, my daughter Jordan snuck into the room and overheard our discussion. With wide eyes and tight lips, she flatly asked me what kind of plan she should make for herself if I were to die? Where would she go? Who would be with her? What about school? Who would help dad? My heart did flip-flops as I listened to my 11-year-old girl talk like an adult much too soon. Death was back in the driver’s seat and I didn’t like it. Everything felt out of my control.
The next day, I sat alone and decided to have it out with someone, anyone, who might be in charge. As I began to recount all the reasons why dying was not on my to-do list. Honestly, I would rather peel all my fingernails off backwards while watching the fishing channel than have to do something like “die young.”
Then, something out of the corner of my eye snapped me back from my inner diatribe with death. It was my oxygen tube. The lifeline that kept me out of the hospital and home with my family seemed to have a kink. It snaked from my nose, onto my bed, and across the floor to the main unit in my closet. The tubing lay tangled up in my once heavily used running shoes.
“Geez, There’s some irony!” I snapped as I jerked the cord free.
Really, I felt like ripping the tube out of my nose, grabbing the tank and hurling the entire apparatus from my second-story window.
Truthfully, though, any satisfaction that could come from tossing that device out the window would only begin to scratch the surface of how sold-out and angry I felt. But it would feel good to have power over something, anything, even for a moment.
As I stewed in my window-smashing fantasy, I eventually eased myself back into reality by considering how much energy it would take to murder my oxygen tank. Energy I didn’t have. So, I let the moment pass me by…at least for now. Instead, as I sat there on my bed, an old, young woman, I became still in my anger, breathed deep and decided to come at this in a different way.
Cindy Finch is a Reimagine Pillar Guide and a cancer survivor. She is also a clinical therapist who helps other patients deal with cancer. She has worked at the Mayo Clinic and specializes in supporting patients and families journeying through terminal or traumatic illnesses. Cindy is married to Darin and they have three children. She enjoys reading, funny movies, ice cream, writing and taking walks on the beach. Follow her on Twitter @5thstepofcancer.