Coping with my Father's Terminal Illness

Fewer things are harder than losing a loved one. I suppose it’s even worse when you lose them slowly. And it’s only worse when there’s nothing you can do about it.

My father is dying. As you might recall, late last year, he beat lung cancer. What wasn’t immediately known was that when he started chemotherapy, the cancer decided it was time to hole up somewhere else. It found a new home in his brain.

Brain cancer is one of the worst. Because it’s a “clean zone”, no chemotherapy will work — there are biological processes that keep those toxins out. (Though, interestingly enough, they’ll let cancerous cells in.) The cancer took hold, and started growing. While we were celebrating dad’s triumph over lung cancer, the unnoticed brain cancer was preparing for the second battle of the war.

It’s a war that my father is likely to lose. When the tumour was found a month following his radiation treatment (during a follow-up CT scan), it immediately became a problem. It was almost as if the tumour knew that we knew it was there, and was bent on taking revenge for being forced out of the lung.

The first thing to go was dad’s balance. The tumour was in the right place to throw that off. Steroids solved that problem — mostly. But it swelled his face quite a lot — a side effect, so he ended up looking much better off than he actually was.

The last time I saw dad was at Christmas. He wasn’t the fastest moving, but he was more than capable of carrying out his Christmasy duties. No-one, really, was any wiser to what was yet to come.

Only a few days after returning to Calgary, dad took a fall. Quite a bad one, and injured himself in the knee and ankle. He had to start using a walker — his lower body strength was atrophying (though his upper body strength seemed no worse). For my father, this was quite a blow, not just physically but also mentally — he’d lost his self-support. A prideful man, for him to rely on anything but himself was something I don’t think he was really ready to accept.

This is common with my family. My grandmother was like this, too. My grandmother used to live in a two-storey Leaside home, until my father and aunt finally convinced her that she needed to move into a retirement home, where she could be looked after and she wouldn’t have to climb stairs. Although her mobility was fair, she could no longer smell or taste foods. It was a struggle to move her from her home of many decades … stubborn pride is a tough thing to fight.

Today, I learned that despite another radiation treatment to retard the brain cancer, the disease is progressing “normally”. Although we don’t know what’s going to happen, the doctor is hinting that my father will live only until about Christmas.

I don’t know what I will do without my father. He’s always been such a wonderful source of information, and a role model that I can only dream of imitating. He tried so hard to be the perfect father, and yet there has always been a slight distance between us. I think it’s partly due to me — I wasn’t the most affectionate child. The rest … well, it doesn’t matter, really. He’s my father, and I love him no matter the past or the future. This is not a year I’m looking forward to.

Worse, though, is what Cathy will have to go through. Cathy is on the frontlines. She’s the one who has to deal with dad’s illness, the one who goes to the doctor, the one who keeps mom and dad going from day to day. I feel so bad because I cannot do the same. As much I would love to take the next six months off, go home and help out my parents, this I cannot do. Perhaps when I do finally find a home of suitable size, I can invite my parents to spend time out here, where I can try to care for them and take some of the load off Cathy, even if only for a while.

This isn’t exactly the easiest time for all this, either. On a selfish side, I’ve got a change in my career (more management than implementation), the stress of hunting (and trying to purchase) a house, Cathy’s wedding (although I’m not doing a lot with it so far), trying to help out the Rocky Mountain Rail Society (but I’m swamped at work), and then there’s my father’s health mixed in with all of that. It’s hard.

These are things I want to talk about with my friends. But what do you say? How do I not come across like someone who’s looking for attention? I just need to talk. My friends know be better than this, of course, so my problem is all with me.

Right now, I can only do what Cathy does — live day to day. And hope that the doctor’s prognosis is wrong. He’s been off before, and maybe — just maybe — the stubbornness of the Sowrey family is enough to turn this around.

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