On Colons, Cancer, and Courage

So as promised I’m going to share pieces previously posted on Field Notes from Fatherhood to give readers unfamiliar with Susan’s situation a bit of history and context.  This is the first-ever post I wrote about Susan’s cancer, way back in something like 1892. Or 2015. Feels like much the same thing. 

The ‘c’ word.

No, not that one. This one is infinitely worse. It’s the one that starts with ‘can’ and ends with ‘cer.’

The one you’d really rather not have cross your doctor’s lips in relation to yourself or anyone you love. Yet here we are.

If you’ve been wondering why you haven’t seen much new on FNFF (as though you have nothing more important to ponder), well, those two vicious little syllables are largely responsible.

To make a very long and convoluted story short, my wife had been having intestinal issues, and had visited two private clinics and two hospital emergency wards, where the doctors saw simply a constipated lady and sent her packing with prescriptions for laxatives. Lots of laxatives. We could open a small pharmacy specializing in purgatives with all of the medication we now possess designed to promote a really quality BM.

Nothing worked.

So we found ourselves in a hospital in Barcelona where, after several fruitless days of further attempted purges, they ultimately performed a colonoscopy. My wife says she knew something was wrong when she awoke from the anesthetic and the doctors were being so exceedingly kind to her.

She had a blockage, and that blockage was a tumor. There was no pretense, even at that stage, of the problem being a trivial one. Conspicuously, no one was using the word ‘benign’ with us.

I suspect that most people receive the word ‘tumor’ with a visible shudder and expect the worst. Not my wife. She’s thinking, “Great, now we know what the problem is. Get the tumor out and I’ll be on my way.”

I couldn’t decide if it was incredible self-deception or remarkable bravery, but either way I could only admire the way in which she demonstrated a confidence that I could in no way share.

They did indeed get the tumor out, and after several days hooked up to more tubes than those poor pod-dwelling human batteries in The Matrix, she was sent home. (I didn’t take the kids to visit during this period, simply because it seemed like, well, you just don’t.)

neo tubes

It had been, needless to say, something of a difficult ten days for everyone. And here I should talk about my metamorphic epiphany, the way in which I viewed the world through a newly life-affirming lens, how I appreciated anew the fragility and preciousness of our mere existence.

But I didn’t. I suppose because, in part, I’ve always viewed life as fragile, ridiculous, precious, capricious and, ultimately, fairly fleeting, and in part because there were more practical considerations to occupy my thoughts.

My wife, as ever, was optimistic to the point of being delusional. She considered chemotherapy a remote possibility. I considered it a certainty, but kept that to myself. I believe myself to be a realist – she calls me a pessimist – but what she certainly didn’t need at that point was my particular brand of realism.

Yesterday – our first meeting with the oncologist – was a day of disappointments. The cancer (if it even was cancer), we hypothesized (without anything more than wishful thinking) to be most likely Stage 1, maybe Stage 2.

Well, shit, it turned out to be not only Stage 3, but was located partly in the colon and partly in the rectum. Which means not only chemotherapy, but radiation treatment to boot.

This will involve daily trips (for 5 – 6 weeks) to Barcelona to be bombarded with gamma rays (really? gamma rays? like The Incredible Hulk?) and various charged particles. This in conjunction with a cocktail of leucovorin, fluorouracil, and oxaliplatin ( “in contrast to cisplatin and carboplatin, oxaliplatin features the bidentateligand 1,2-diaminocyclohexane in place of the two monodentate ammine ligands” – hmmm).

For the first time, I watched my wife’s spirits momentarily flag.

But not for long. Despite the fact that she’s looking at six months of chemo, during which time all this can be yours:

Nausea & Vomiting
Hair Loss
Blood Clotting Problems
Mouth, Gum and Throat Problems
Diarrhea and Constipation
Nerve and Muscle Effects
Effects on Skin and Nails
Radiation Recall
Kidney and Bladder Effects
Flu-Like Symptoms
Fluid Retention
Effects on Sexual Organs and Sexuality

my wife took a deep breath, accepted the inevitable, and moved on. She considers the daily trips to the hospital (about 1 1/2 hours each way) to be a great opportunity to go into her office nearby and get some work done. Lunatic.

I shouldn’t claim, of course, that nothing has changed. In a way, everything has changed.

For one thing, her illness has, perversely, given us a chance to hang out together – something that had previously been woefully neglected. We get to do simple, everyday things together – grocery shopping, preparing meals, having lunch together (lunch!) on the terrace. Even attending to her medical needs provides a shared experience which, bizarrely, is kind of sexy. No, sexy isn’t the right word. Intimate. An intimacy that, even after nearly 20 years together, can be surprisingly lacking in a relationship.

So why, after all, am I sharing all of this with you?

Well, I suppose there are a number of reasons. One, it provides me with a nifty excuse for neglecting my blog – my wife has cancer, for chrissakes, cut me some slack.

Two, it’s somehow cathartic to just talk about it, even if that conversation is, necessarily, rather one-sided.

Three, this stuff is just a part of life. People get cancer. Many live, some don’t. There’s still, surprisingly, a quiet kind of stigma attached to cancer, so any chance to talk openly about it should, I think, be taken. (Check out Bethany Townsend and Blake Beckford,who, while not cancer sufferers, are making colostomy bags cool.)blake-beckford-matt-marsh

Four, if anyone can draw any degree of comfort from the story of another family going through something difficult, something relatively common yet still astonishingly shitty, then that’s a good thing. My wife’s stoicism is something that I can scarcely understand but something that I think worth sharing.

In the car ride home from the hospital (one of many, many to come) I joked with my wife that maybe the gamma ray machine would go wonky and she’d be bestowed some kind of fantastical supra-human powers. She’d be able to fly and smite bad guys with cosmic rays from her colostomy bag or something.

I joked that maybe she’d become a superhero. Then I realized something.

She already was.

Susan on Tarzan swing, Titi3


  1. Matthew you and Susan are such an inspiration. Your long journey copping with this monster is a testimony of your strength and love. Matthew I am your mother’s cousin. I have only met you years ago and have never had the pleasure of meeting Susan. I only learned of Susan’s illness through Facebook this week. I phoned your mom immediately to get more information. I am praying for you both and for your family.Remember Footprints in the Sand. If ever you feel alone that is when God is carrying you. God is embracing Susan is giving her the strength to face the future in her darkest hour and promising everlasting life. Peace and comfort to you both.

    Liked by 1 person

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