Bipolar Cancer Husband No. 2

square787Dr. Rettenmaier had told us that he was waiting for the pathologist’s report. We had forgotten this fact during the two days between the initial discovery of the malignant growth on Lynn’s ovary and the diagnostic paperwork. Lynn had awakened from her surgery to discover that she wasn’t going home, that her doctor had had to remove her whole uterus. After I fetched her computer from home, she pored over all the information she could find on ovarian cancer. The outlook did not look good. I made a point of holding back the grim photo of her excised body parts. She had enough on her plate and everyone was telling me that I had to support her with all my spirit and body.

The exceptions were the husbands and wives of cancer patients, as well as cancer survivors. They told me that I had to take care of myself. One neighbor whose wife had had breast cancer told me that the most important thing I had to do was tell my wife that I loved her every day. But he also empathized with the pressure I was under.

I must confess that I still feel a little selfish when I remind people that I am under stress — perhaps more stress than Lynn. The cancer patient has to go through the motions of treatment, but everyone rallies around her or him. People expect the spouse to take the lead in this. The fact remains that my wife has been living with a potentially fatal illness. How can the squeezing you feel in your chest measure up against the palpable tumors that appear on sonograms and post-operative photos? Where’s the drama in a headache? You feel terrifically alone. The party — if you dare call it that — isn’t going to be about you. You tell people, but most of them give you the glass eye.

To survive, I made time for myself to take photos and take walks. I made sure to get home every night to look after the animals. This task made me feel of some use. When someone1 suggested that the filthiness of our condo required that we get rid of the cats, I felt sick and started to cry. Lynn had a massive support system of which I was an important part. But the cats and the dog were going to be my support system. Lynn’s oncologist scoffed at the idea of ridding ourselves of the animals — “You’re not brittle!” he told her — and our vet provided us with information about living with chemotherapy and keeping your pets. Armed with this, I simply told the people who were telling us that we had to do this “The pets are off-limits.”

On the backs of this resolve came better news: Lynn had endometrial cancer. It would be a few days before we got an idea of how bad, but even with a 10 to 15% depreciation of her survival chances2, it was certainly a more sanguine prospect than the 46% assigned to ovarian cancer. I felt that we were going to make it. But there were major projects to undertake before Lynn could move back into the condo.



  1. One of those nonmedical professionals who though s/he read that pets were dangerous to people undergoing chemo []
  2. Uterine cancers usually have a 90% or more survival rate with treatment []

Bipolar Cancer Husband No. 1

I’ve been trying to write this story for months, but the time and the motivation have not been there.

square785Two things tipped me off that something was wrong. First, I looked at my cell phone and realized that too much time had passed. Dr. Rettenmaier had promised a quick surgery — twenty five minutes — and now an hour and fifteen minutes had passed. Laparascopic hysterectomies were his specialties. The grin on his face had been confident and true. It was just a cyst. He did this all the time.

The disappearance of that grin when he came out to see me was the second clue. He led me into a small consultation room. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that there was a malignant mass on Lynn’s ovary. He’d cut her open and removed the entire uterus including the cervix. He showed me a picture of a pile of bloody organs that he said was what he had removed. They looked like meat from a butcher.

His tone was grave. He made an effort to underscore that he hadn’t photo-shopped anything, that he had followed procedure, and that we were dealing with cancer. I’m sure the fact that I was bipolar danced in the back of his mind. I understand. He had probably dealt with plenty of husbands who, on hearing the news, wanted to shake him and tell him that he had made a mistake. My calm must have surprised him. I accepted fate and asked what questions my shaken consciousness allowed.

He let me call my mother-in-law so she could ask her questions of him. I don’t think she was any more thorough and coherent than I was. “How could this happen to Lynn,” her mother said to me after he returned the phone to me. Who had an answer for great matters of the universe as trivial in the greater scheme of things as this was. Dr. Rettenmaier told me to wait for the pathology report. He couldn’t tell me what kind of cancer it was without it.

Kay Redfield Jamison says that there is a big difference between bipolar depression and grief. I was feeling the latter now. I could walk, talk, see colors. Most distinctly, I could cry.

People in the waiting area who heard my news told me that this was the worst day, the day where you found out the fact and didn’t know the reality. The receptionist took pity on me and told me I could visit Lynn in the recovery room.

I stood by Lynn’s gurney. Her eyes flickered open. Had she heard the news. “What happened?” she asked. “You have cancer,” I whimpered.

“I have cancer?” she said, groggily.

“Yes,” I replied.

The nurse did not let me stay very long. They sent me up to the sixth floor of Hoag Hospital where I waited until they told me that I could go in. I used the time to call friends and family to tell them the news. Ovarian cancer, I kept murmuring to myself. The prognosis would not be good.