As a society we act like we have infinite time. We carry 40-year mortgages, we save for the retirement in which we will travel and drink fine wine, and we never think we are going to be the ones whose life may be cut short. We assume we will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversaries, host our children's weddings and see our grandchildren born. But our family has had to start functioning with the knowledge this may not happen.
In March, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 39. I was devastated. My first thought was that I was going to die and how would our children, ages 5 and 7, survive without me?
I went into a depression, but I knew I had my husband Dave to rely on. He would get us through this and be a great father to the kids no matter the outcome.
Six weeks later, Dave went in for what was supposed to be a routine endoscopy to repair a stricture, or narrowing, in his esophagus. When the doctor called me in, I assumed it was to tell me about the procedure he had just done. Instead, he delivered the news that he had found cancer.
"But I have breast cancer," I blurted out.
Dave was 45 and diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer that had spread to his liver. There is no cure. The median survival is 10 to 12 months.
I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments and exhausted. How were we going to cope as a family? I was certain there was no way we could get through this. Questions raced through my head: "How are we going to look after the kids?" "How do we tell them?" "How will they manage?"
We asked ourselves countless times, "How could this be happening to each of us, and at the same time?" It seemed inconceivable.
We have limited family support because of the small size of our families and geography. But our friends mobilized to a force that still amazes us. Spreadsheets for meals and play dates were created, and offers came pouring in for everything from lawn care to rides to appointments. We were in awe.
One of the most amazing moments came in May. We had finished an addition to our house last fall, and had left the backyard until this spring. A plan was drawn up, but after Dave's diagnosis it was put on the back burner.
Without our knowledge, our contractor, who is a friend and neighbour, put together a group of about 40 of our friends to create a backyard oasis for us in one weekend. I will never forget waking up to see our friends, a combination of doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants and contractors, creating a stunning backyard. They built a cedar deck, laid sod, planted trees and flowers. They created a peaceful place for us in the middle of a personal storm.
The kids have been remarkably resilient through all of this. We tried to keep their routines in place as much as possible, but told them we wouldn't have much energy. We took it day by day with giving them information about our illnesses, trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves.
Our older daughter was upset I would lose my hair. Before it started to fall out, we all went to the salon where the kids took turns cutting my long locks to a short pixie cut.
There were times they couldn't understand why we were so tired, and they were frustrated by our lack of activity. They see my mastectomy scars now and don't even blink. I am still Mom.
I have days when I don't think we can do it. Dave was on an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that rendered him tired and sick. I was on chemo and radiation at the same time. With both of us on leave from work, our whole life revolved around appointments at the cancer centre, sometimes four a day between the two of us. It almost seemed like too much.
There were nights Dave and I would cry together in the dark. We were so immersed in our treatments and daily life that we rarely had time to sit quietly to face our darkest fears. At first we didn't even know how to support each other. We were both so emotionally tapped with our own issues that we barely had anything left for each other.
But we did, and in some strange way knowing what the other person was going through gave us comfort. I think subconsciously we avoided being alone so we wouldn't have to talk about the future. But we had to, and we did. And it wasn't easy.
Each of us would sometimes watch the kids sleep and cry. It was so unfair they had to go through this. The thought of our daughters losing one of us was unbearable.
Today, I am officially cancer free. But Dave is not, and his future is uncertain. He will have to endure two operations soon that will be high risk, and the outcome is unknown.
We have learned to literally take things a day at a time. We think about tomorrow and the future with cautious optimism. Our whole perspective on life has changed, some days for the better. We appreciate small moments more, and watch and listen more carefully. We spend much more time together as a family. Instead of going to separate televisions at night, we play Scrabble or sit and talk.
Some of our friends have told us that we have had the same impact on their lives. They don't let the small stuff get in the way. They have booked trips they had been putting off. Some are even working less and spending more time with their own families.
People have told us we are an inspiration to them. We don't feel particularly inspirational most days. We are just living this life the best way we know how, and that's all we can do to get through this.
Kelly Rowcliffe lives in London, Ont.
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