What It’s Like When Your Wife Has Breast Cancer
It has been almost three months since my beautiful wife Crystal was diagnosed with breast cancer. Yesterday was her first chemotherapy treatment. It's been 41 days since she underwent a bilateral mastectomy, the first day in this journey when everything in our lives changed.
And by "changed" I'm not talking about the fact that her breasts were removed. Yes, that was a change, but other than removing the cancer they contained that is the least important change.
As the cliché calls it, we have a "new normal." It's a normal that is never the same. There is always a new normal coming.
The first new normal was Crystal recovering from a really major surgery. For nearly six hours she was under anesthesia as her breasts were removed and then a plastic surgeon performed reconstruction. That reconstruction involves the inserting of tissue expanders under her chest muscles (yes, they go underneath) and filling them with fluid to make room for implants.
So not only did she go through the trauma of having a couple of body parts removed, then her muscles are stretched out to very painful lengths. Think of it as doing the splits for the first time in twenty years and then holding it there for 3 days.
For the first week after coming home from the hospital she was doped up pretty good on Percocet and muscle relaxers.
Part of this normal was really perplexing. Crystal is the best person I know. She can be a little sarcastic and snarky, especially if her husband does something stupid. But for about a week after surgery she wasn't sarcastic or snarky.
She was an a-hole!
Everything I did or asked was the dumbest thing she ever heard. I once asked her if she wanted a refill of her water. Her eyes almost rolled out of her head as she said "Well, yeah!" in a less than pleasant tone. After taking 3 days of abuse I couldn't take it anymore. I yelled back.
"Hey, I'm trying! You're the one who's sick, but you're not the only one who's going through this!"
It didn't seem to faze her. She still acted as though I was a moron who shouldn't be allowed to speak or think, an attitude that has always pressed my buttons. My temper got the best of me and I felt really guilty afterward. She's going through hell and venting and I'm yelling at a cancer patient.
"What a jackass I am," I thought.
Sometime after that first week at home, after she had weened herself off the medications, she started asking me questions about things that happened. She had so many fleeting memories she couldn't tell what was real and what was imagined and was trying to fill in the gaps.
I asked her if she remembered me yelling at her. She did not. Apparently the Percocet not only caused some memory lapses, it also made Crystal mean. I told her the story of what happened and she laughed, having no memory of it whatsoever.
I love telling that story to people who know her well because they know she doesn't have a mean bone in her body (unless she's on Percocet, then all her bones are mean).
Another novel part of our new normal was Crystal and I being at home alone. We were lucky that our parents were able to take the kids for most of the first four weeks.
It was so quiet. Quiet like I hadn't heard since before our oldest was born.
I got a chance to see the kids every three or four days while they were in Beresford at my parents' house, but when they went up to her parents' farm near Prinsburg, Minn., we really went through kid withdrawal.
While she was still heavily medicated she didn't even really mention the kids other than to say it was great they were gone so she was able to rest. While true, she was probably trying to talk herself into that.
One thing I'm never going to get used to is the generosity of our friends, family, and even complete strangers. We've never been in a situation where we were in need so it's strange.
I'm not a crier, but I have bawled on a couple of occasions. Hell, I'm tearing up just going through my memory of what people have given us and done to help us purely out of the goodness of their heart.
It's been little things all the way up to really big things. It is all greatly appreciated. Again, I'm not a crier, but there have been several things done for us that have made me burst out in tears doing a really ugly cry face.
I've never been one to ask for things. It's a Midwestern pride thing. Whatever we have to deal with we can do it on our own. We can handle it. And I still think we could have, but it would have been a hell of a lot harder without the meals and gifts, people taking the kids places and taking Crystal places when I had to work.
It's been outstanding.
I felt guilty at first because we were doing okay. I can still cook and buy groceries and take care of kids and occasionally clean stuff, but a friend of ours whose young child battled cancer said something that removed the guilt.
"People want to help. Let them!"
It made me realize what "Team Crystal" actually means.
Crystal is the one who is actually in the fight, taking punches, but also throwing punches. I'm her trainer in the corner, the Mickey to her Rocky, but all the other trainers and coaches a fighter needs are in the corner and on the team.
Everyone who brought a meal or gave a gift, they're on the team. The women who have helped take care of Crystal's garden, also on the team. Even if someone has been thinking about us and were thankful that it's us and not them, don't feel bad about it. You're on our team too.
There's a huge difference between being "glad" and "thankful." Getting to know the families at the Cure Kids Cancer Radiothon every year always made me very thankful that our kids were healthy.
So what is it like for your wife to have breast cancer? It's just life with an extra scoop of suck, but a couple of armfuls of awesome dropped on top.
Watching Crystal go through surgery and recovery wasn't fun. It won't be fun to watch her hair fall out and go through all the side effects of chemotherapy, which just started.
Having to carry a bunch of extra parental loads that she can't do isn't fun, but it has brought us closer together as a husband and wife. The love and support from everyone is something I couldn't have understood before her diagnosis and can only explain it by saying that it makes me -- a prideful, humble loudmouth know-it-all -- so happy and thankful that I cry.
One more thing: Crystal wanted me to remind women that 1 in 8 of you (12.5%) will get breast cancer. Do your self exams and get your damn mammograms.