Alone, again

Norman cried the night his daughter was born. For hours and hours. Each time he looked at her perfect head, touched the few strands of blond hair, held her in his arms, soft smooth skin, soapy smell, pale blue eyes, tears poured down his cheeks. He felt alive. He felt alone. They named her Matilda, after his father. It was the right thing to do, because his father, Matthew, had dropped dead the day before.

He got over his Dad’s death, as much as any of us heal from the loss of someone we need. We live in a new world. Still, Mattie’s birthdays were bittersweet. Norm’s lost dream of giving his Dad that first grandchild faded the candles. Like the first, each annum was celebration and mourning.

Eight months ago, Norman started to cough. Dry and annoying at first, he blamed it on the icy winter. Then his handkerchief tinged red. The X-ray showed a shadow. The CT a mass. The biopsy carcinoma. Norman had lung cancer and he became my patient.

Locally advanced lung cancer is treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Practitioners call it “chemo-RT.” Tough treatment, he had the usual fatigue, anemia, heartburn and occasional nausea. Nonetheless, Norman got through. When we repeated the scan, as anyone would dream, the cancer was gone.

What is his prognosis? As doctors equivocate, “guarded.” Lung cancer is a nasty disease and has a habit of returning or spreading, even when it seems in remission. Tomorrow. Next month. Next year.

This can be the hardest part of cancer treatment, trying to cope with the unknown. It is nagging terror that a silent guillotine’s blade may be falling and there is nothing to do.   “Norm, you are fine, maybe cured, or maybe the cancer will return and you will die.” Alfred Hitchcock could not write a scarier plot.

No one would be surprised that now that the therapy is done and all that is left is the waiting, that Norman is depressed. I support Norm, encourage him, give him ideas about how to cope, how to get through each day, how to put the disease into pale perspective.

Today, it occurred to me that Norm is alone.

His wife used to come with him to all his visits. Nevertheless, in the last couple of months, Norm is always by himself. I have never met his daughter, who lives in Chicago. No friends stand by his side. I asked why.

Norm said that the visits make his wife upset. That she has trouble sleeping. That they fight. Therefore, he was trying “not to burden” her. Norm found, now that he did not need a driver, it was easier to come by himself. I asked whether they talked about the cancer or the future. Not any more.

“How old is your daughter,” I asked.


“What does she think of what you are going through?”

“She is OK.”

“She is OK that you have lung cancer?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Mattie does not know.”

“You have not told her that you have cancer? You have not told her about all those treatments? She does not know that you could die?”

“No, I didn’t want her to be upset. I do not want her to worry.

“Is she OK? Is she healthy?”

“Yes, she’s fine, she works all the time.”

“And she’s married, right. Is her marriage OK?”

“No problems. They get along fine.”

“Then, I don’t understand why have you not told her. Why you keep yourself so alone, talking to no one. No wonder you are so depressed. Why are you so worried about her?”

“She is due in October. Mattie is pregnant.”


  • Kathryn
    Tender and touching. Your best narrative yet doc. Norm's scenario could be any one of us with a few variations on a theme. You are a breaker rock standing against the tides. Please hold us up for as long as you can.
  • Liz
    Cancer is an emotional earthquake. The emotional toll it takes on family is tremendous. If his wife is too stressed out she may be discouraging him from leaning on her now that treatment is over. Of course his fear of repeating history isn't unreasonable. It takes time, lots of time, to wrap your brain around this crap. Being just done with treatment is not enough time. Then there is the belief- you are done with treatment, why are you still falling apart?, which often results in a reluctance to talk about it much as you get judged for not being "over it". He is lucky you are willing to notice and ask. Many oncologists are not. He needs more than what you can offer him though. The whole cancer gig just sucks. Totally sucks.
  • meyati
    For me, I feel trapped. I'm not supposed to be out in the sun. I'm in remission, but I still feel trapped. My son is a 100% disabled vet, and I feel a responsibility to him on many levels. He gives me a good home, He helps with the bills that bite me in the rear. I've tried to get help from the VA, but his benefits don't cover that. The cancer is on my face, which makes it a lot more difficult. i used to ask him if I could go fishing-drive a few miles, and use a fishing pole. He said, No. I was trying to work-I was lucky that I had jobs, where he could call up and cry about a problem. His son got into dope and a life of crime.I came back from Spain, and my son had been abused, kitchen cabinets torn off the walls. I had to turn down jobs where I'd relocate. He wouldn't come with me. We've a one vehicle family. I write down my appointments, but he doesn't look, and he gets mad when there's a conflict. When they said that I'd die, I gave my paid off car to a struggling student grandson. Now, I'm fighting with my son to use the truck for a dump run-3 months, and I start loading the truck up- and he says that he needs it. Fortunately, not everyone has a felon for a relative. I know my son is doing the best that he can, but I feel isolated and trapped. We don't know the real dynamics that goes on in that home. Maybe he's the one shutting his wife out. Maybe they both might be shutting each other out. My X daughter-in-law belongs to a tribe that believes a family member dies within 3 days of a birth. Her father died the day after her son was born. Maybe this man or his wife is from a culture that believes this Everyone decide that ancient Grandma L or her husband would die. They both lived for many more years. Maybe they feel this, maybe they just plain fell trapped. I feel trapped with all of these apps. I just want to make a comments. I like to shop online. I won't shop if I have to sign in to even look at something. I don't care about a site's rating with the Internet ratings for having the most shoppers, or a blog having the most followers. Now to clean up after my dogs.
  • jillma
    Sometimes it is the communication and treatment of a patient by the attending physicians that may set the pace for a more supportive situation for the patient. Honesty..good example of humanitarian approach and great love of the human body and its credence for the value of every individual..not just a select few. The dignity and care for someone enduring great suffering and loss should be a given. "This is not an acceptable situation or outcome..what can we do?"
  • thanks for the story. When I had chemo treatments for Hodgkins I was alone all times except the first, my aunt was there for me, and last which my daughter attended. I guess I felt why bother other people with what I have. But when I saw the elderly in there alone I would get upset. Cancer should be a shared burdened with others so one does not have to be alone during treatments. Secretly I know I wanted someone there with me, not to hold my hand, but just for the company. Thanks John

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