At 27, I found myself in an unfathomable situation when my husband was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. To say we were devastated would be an understatement.
He was only 31 and our lives were just beginning. With two young children, the only resolution we were willing to accept was a cure. We were not prepared or willing to accept a death sentence.
Unfortunately life doesn’t always go as planned, and a short 15 months later I found myself standing beside his lifeless body.
Anyone who tells you life can be free of regrets is lying. That, or they have never watched their spouse die. I’m not ashamed to admit I am one of those people who lives with the regret of what I didn't have the courage to do when I was in the moment.
Had I known then, what I know now, this is what I would have said:
1. It's Not Your Fault.
Let’s face it, when diagnosed with a terminal illness, there is a propensity to review your past with a fine-toothed comb. It seems everyone has an opinion about what causes cancer. Our frame of reference was simply that 31-year-old men are not commonly diagnosed with colon cancer. With 90 percent of new cases being detected in people over the age of 50, it has traditionally been known as a disease that plagues older generations, not vital young men like my husband.
What I wish I had said to him was, “You did not cause this and there's nothing you could have done to prevent it. You couldn't have eaten better, chose a different career, lived it up a little less during the party days of your youth, stressed less, or gotten more sleep. And, I’m sorry if I ever made you feel this way, because it doesn’t matter now. The bottom line is there is no amount of coulda, shoulda, woulda's that will restore your health – not now, not ever.”
2. I shouldn't have made decisions for you. I’m sorry.
Fear is a powerful emotion – one that drove a large portion of my decision-making over the course of my husband’s illness. Fear of not having enough money, of the next scan results, of my children living without a father, and more.
I vividly remember how I felt when the decision was made to prescribe narcotics for constant use. I was terrified. Could he still drive safely? What about driving the kids around, would that be OK? Out of fear, I actually called our insurance company and had him removed as a driver. Worst decision I ever made.
Then there was the time I called the hospice nurse without his permission to request an increase of pain medication despite his repeated refusal. I never considered that he might have needed that last remaining ounce of courage that sitting in pain afforded him. It seemed crazy then, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all.
3. I support your decision to choose the treatment you feel is best for you.
When someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, you find yourself grasping at straws. There is a huge part of you that feels like the whole world has turned against you, even the doctors whose mandate is to help. When you are given very few options, as in our case, you may feel called to search elsewhere.
I have always been a huge proponent of natural therapies, so I tried my best to convince him to seek alternative treatments. Many times, I toiled over alternative therapies into the wee hours of the morning in an effort to find the best treatment options available, because I believed that was what you did when someone you love is sick.
I would stop at nothing to convince him the conventional treatment methods would not suffice, but I’m afraid I may have done so at his expense. I can never be sorry enough.
4. You are worthy.
Cancer has a way of defacing a person by stripping them of every last ounce of human dignity they possess. My husband’s experience taught me one very valuable lesson – never take anything for granted. When he finally succumbed to a colostomy to relieve some discomfort, I saw it in his eyes, he was mortified.
Although I begged him to allow me to help him perform the routine care it required, he refused. I guess there are certain indignities a person would rather keep from their lover, this I understand.
On one particular occasion the smell became overpowering. It seemed to infiltrate every crevice of our home. Unable to handle it anymore, I went to him and from the other side of the bathroom door, I muttered, “Can you please open the window?” I’m sure, in that moment, opening the window was the furthest thing from his mind.
If I had it to do over again, I would do all I could to communicate to him that the state of his physical body did not define his worth.
5. I don’t blame you for not wanting to seek counseling.
When living with terminal illness, there are some wounds that are just too deep to even begin to unravel, and that’s OK.
6. Fuck it… let’s go get ice cream.
Sometimes all you’re given is a handful of shitty choices to choose from. And when life really sucks, sometimes the best of those choices is to choose none of them at all. Sometimes the best choice is to just forget about everything and go eat ice cream, or any other thing that tickles your fancy. I’m sorry for allowing worry to prevent me from living life to the fullest when it was especially crucial to do so.
7. It’s okay to admit there is no silver lining.
There are no amount of lives my husband touched that will ever make up for the pain he suffered, the dignity that was stripped from him, or the life he lost. Above all, I wish I had given him permission to admit that.
I now realize, being brave and pretending there’s some silver lining is more about helping others cope than it is about our own path. I wish I had told my husband to truly feel his emotions in their entirety without feeling like he needed to sugar coat them for someone else's benefit.
The truth is, cancer is a devastating illness. Not only does it steal lives, but it rips apart families in the process. Throughout the cancer journey, there was not a day that went by that we didn’t feel extremely alone in our struggles – that level of anxiety is capable of wreaking havoc on even the most stable of lives.
Mainly, we were at a loss for how to navigate the labyrinth laid out before us – hence, the reason I stumbled often. Miraculously, in the end, the overarching theme would prove to be forgiveness. We both understood we had done the best we could with what we had been given – and ultimately, it is our love for one another that overshadows the regrets that remain.