The blessing and damnation of knowing about my dad’s cancer

I know that my dad has cancer at its pancreas since ten months. If I think back, these last ten months have been an emotional roller-coaster. In the beginning, the doctors did not want to scare my dad and me. “We found this cyst in the pancreas while we were doing another exam. It may be harmless, but it may also be cancer.”

When I heard this diagnosis I felt very confused. What does this mean? Is my dad going to become very sick and loose his long hippy hair? Is he going to die???

When I realized that I was almost asking the doctor this last question, all in a sudden I just had to laugh at myself. Of course, he will die. But until that exact moment, when I was sitting in that gray doctor’s office in the hospital, I never thought about it as something real, as something that may really happen.

During those first months, the big question was: “Is it cancer or not?” Doing an endoscopy (going in the pancreas through the stomach with a camera like in the “Once Upon a Time… Life” cartoon I loved as a child…) to find it out was not possible because of the high risk of an inner bleeding. So we were left with this blessing-damnation of the doubt. Finally, the doctors said that the probability that it is cancer is 99%.

Once you name the enemy and talk about cancer, you also start talking about possibilities to cure it or at least decrease the speed of its growth. I learned about a lot of terms and therapies that were totally new to me: radiotherapy, chemotherapy, which pancreas cancers you can operate and which ones not. You also learn about the secondary effects of every therapy, the risks of dying during an operation and how much time in average – sacred average – people spent in the hospital to recover.

But as I saw the dark clouds approaching bringing along a big storm, the only question that really mattered was: “Dad, given that we know that the clock is ticking, which kind of life do you want to have during the time you have left?”, which is quite a different question from the “What will you do with your life?” that I often ask myself.

What does “quality of life” mean for you? Do you want to live five more years, but spend half a year in the hospital soon, while risking to die during the operation, or do you prefer to do nothing, let the cancer grow at its own pace and when it starts hitting, become yellow and pretty sick quicker? It could take weeks or months. We don’t know.

It’s hard to find an answer to these questions. The rational way of thinking does not help in this kind of situations. There is too much incertitude. Probabilities are great, but when you are sick this 1% of chance, that it is not cancer, matters a lot. It is a window of hope.

During those months I learned that my dad believes that we have a spirit. A spirit that, when the human body dies, moves on. Because of that, he was not afraid of dying. But he was afraid of being stuck in a hospital or hospice for months or years. He wanted to have his simple life and independence until he was living. He wanted to be able to walk around and take pictures of the trees along the river.

The lack of clarity with regard to the therapy to adopt kept being in the air during the whole summer. We talked with several specialists, and after every meeting, the best solution seemed to be another one. Things that had been said by one doctor did lose their relevance while talking with another specialist. In the beginning, I just wanted the doctors to tell us what’s the best option, which decision should my dad take. But after a while, I realized that even the doctors did not know.

Finally the options “naturally” shrunk: as the cancer grew the operation was not anymore doable. The only possibility was to undertake a radiotherapy with the goal of decreasing the growth speed of the cancer.

During those autumn months, the fact of undertaking a therapy empowered my dad. It gave him a way to fight for his life, it gave him a meaning of life. It made him start dreaming about future plans again. It gave him a reason to go out of the house every day, have a walk, talk and joke with the nurses at the hospital. He did not have secondary effects, which was a blessing. I was extremely released to see him become stronger again, at least for a few months during that season.

I felt as if the time we spend together was a gift of life. We were going for small walks together along the river, watching the trees. He told me stories, about which plant did people smoke or use to heal wounds in the middle age. And I asked questions I never dared to ask him. What is your favorite tree? Why? Are you happy about how did you live your life? What should I do with his ashes?

I felt blessed to have the chance to ask him. Without knowing about his cancer I would not have felt this urgency to dare and ask questions that can be so personal and sensitive. I would not have realized that if I don’t ask now, I may not have another chance to ask.