5 Things I Learned When My Husband Was Given a 6 Week Prognosis
Advocacy How one family faced with what seemed like an impossible journey fought the toughest fight of their lives.
1. Medical odds and percentages mean nothing
When my husband, George, was initially diagnosed with stage III melanoma, doctors told us if he passed the 5-year mark without a recurrence, we could all rest easy. The odds were that if he made it that far it wouldn’t come back.
Eight months after his 5-year checkup, George began coughing up blood and knew he needed to be seen immediately.
I hurried to the hospital and when I stepped into the radiologist’s office he was already reviewing the results of the imaging tests. One look at the face I knew nearly as well as my own told me the news wasn’t good.
I turned my attention to the large screen in the center of the room and saw what looked like a diagnostic crime scene: several images, outlines of organs I recognized peppered with spots of white, gray and black, his lung, his adrenal gland and his heart.
The cancer was back, and it was everywhere.
Melanoma is deadly and unpredictable. It didn’t matter that George was healthy or young. It made no difference that statistically he should have been in the clear after five years.
2. Finding the right treatment center is vital
Because melanoma is a tricky cancer in its later stages, it’s essential to seek out a care center that’s both familiar with and well equipped to handle it.
After George’s diagnosis with metastatic disease I called one of the premiere research cancer institutes in the nation and sent them all of George’s scans and results. They wouldn’t even see him for an appointment. “Mrs. Hnath, it would take six weeks to start the treatment we have in mind for him,” said the famous doctor on the other end of the line.
“I don’t think he’ll be here that long.”
Thankfully, when I called MD Anderson in Houston they were more than happy to see George. We knew there were multiple clinical trials to choose from, so we headed to Texas.
Had we stayed and received regional care, George would be dead. I am convinced of that. Especially when dealing with an aggressive, unpredictable disease, it’s crucial to get to a center with lots of data points and treatment options.
3. I share a bond with my husband unlike any other
I have seen this disease fracture families with the weight of the emotion it carries, and it’s not surprising. Watching a loved one go through cancer treatment is brutal. It often forces you to face mortality prematurely while struggling with feelings of grief and helplessness. Sometimes the combination can prove overwhelming for even the strongest of relationships, but the threat of losing each other drew George and me closer together.
Stretching out the vinyl reclining chair in his hospital room, transforming it into my bed night after night so that I was never apart from George, I gently ran my fingers through his hair when he was out cold from drugs used to control his pain. Caressing his face, trying to commit every inch to memory with my palm. Interlacing our fingers, sitting side by side in MRI waiting rooms. No words exchanged, but each gesture speaking volumes.We clung to each other and our desire to have a future together with our family.
Seeing George so ill is a memory I’d rather forget, but it’s also a reminder of just how much we mean to one another.
4. Being a caregiver is a hard job that not everyone can afford to do
Supporting George through his cancer treatment is my sole caregiving experience. Though it was relatively brief in comparison to many in the same situation, the cumulative toll was intense.
With the help of our extended family, we were able to move our three young children to Houston for the summer where we rented an apartment. It was wonderful to have them so close, but it left me both emotionally and physically exhausted; it seemed like I was always torn between tending to my kids' needs or my spouse's.
“I was even more terrified of the alternative: if I wasn't caring for him, it would mean he was gone.”
George required an advocate and a best friend by his side, but the kids needed an emotional foundation in the face of such uncertainty. I had to nurse the wounds the emotional shrapnel left in their tiny little hearts from the cancer bomb that detonated in our lives. I was so scared and so sad, but felt I could never let my children see that. I had to keep it all together for them and for my husband.
There was no time for me to take care of myself, and when I looked around at my contemporaries, I saw no one else my age going through the same ordeal. I felt boxed in, isolated and scared that the life I was living would go on indefinitely; but I was even more terrified of the alternative: if I wasn't caring for him, it would mean he was gone.
I found myself thinking things like "this isn't what I signed up for," and immediately feeling guilty. But witnessing your best friend, your partner, vomit so hard and so often that every blood vessel in his eyes burst, is tough. Seeing him out cold but knowing that I wouldn't sleep, couldn't sleep, and hadn't slept in weeks, is brutal. And realizing that the tiny bit of safety I felt while he was an inpatient with nurses in charge, would vanish the minute we left and I was taking care of him on my own again, was crushing. This on top of having three kids under the age of ten to nurture—I'll admit it—some days got the best of my resolve and me.
Still, I consider our caregiving experience to be extremely fortunate. When my husband was sick we had the ultimate luxury, I was a stay-at-home parent and we could afford for me to focus solely on taking care of him. I didn’t need to worry about requesting time off from my job, FMLA requirements, or replacing my income.
As I began getting to know other families of loved ones on the same treatment ward as George, I saw that it was often the parents sitting by the sides of patients in our age bracket. Spouses were forced to stay at home to continue working and keeping their family afloat.
I recognized how fortunate we were to have the financial and emotional support of George’s employer, the U.S. Navy. It was through the Navy that we were able to dedicate all of our resources to get him the treatment he needed. I only wish this was available to every family, as it should be.
5. Odds and percentages still mean nothing
In the short time between George’s diagnosis with metastatic disease and traveling to Houston, I did some online research about his condition and the 5-year survival odds: between 5-10 percent was the best I could find, but most placed it below 5 percent.
Regardless of these statistics, when we got to MD Anderson they offered hope. They had an opening in an innovative trial utilizing a patient’s own immune system to treat the cancer.
We were excited about the possibility, but while we were waiting to begin, George’s cancer spread to his brain. His doctors gave him two months.
The clinical trial, conducted in the ICU due to its dangerous nature, pushed George’s system to its limits. But, he responded amazingly well. Seven years later, George continues to live a strong and healthy life and is a shining beacon of hope. In terms of survival odds, it's 0 or 100 when it comes to you.