There isn’t a way to prepare yourself for dealing with a loved one having cancer.
No matter how many years of watching someone smoke pack after pack of cigarettes, the actual diagnosis strikes right at your heart. The ensuing changes in behavior and attempts to accommodate everyday challenges become overwhelming.
One year ago in April my wife, Cathy got up in a strange darkened bedroom at our daughter’s home and fell over a granddaughter’s plywood kitchen set. She injured three ribs and had to have x-rays to determine if they were broken. That’s when lesions in both lungs were discovered.
I always knew this was coming.
Next come the specialists; the oncologist and others who begin to evaluate the situation and determine what course of treatment needs to be taken. First the tears, then notifying relatives, and the hopeful plan of action. The diagnosis: 12-18 months to live. Time to pray.
The fact someone chooses to engage in a habit that is detrimental to health was my first clue that sometime in the future I would be dealing with the inevitable crisis of cancer. From the start of our marriage 28 years ago I tried to get Cathy to quit. I pleaded with her, bargained with her, threatened her, but tobacco was her first love and tobacco will always be ahead of me in line for her fidelity.
Smoking anything to meet requirements of an addiction means the lungs and respiratory system are being compromised.
On the other hand, I don’t believe in addiction. I believe people have free will and use of narcotics including tobacco is a choice. Once that choice has been initiated the need for it becomes more than many people can overcome to quit. Yet I have seen smokers make the firm decision to quit and that was it.
An event of my own childhood preempted me from ever engaging in smoking. As a boy in second grade, I was wearing a fashionable “boatneck” shirt that had ¾-length sleeves. That shirt matched a shirt my father had. A family friend noted it while visiting our house and asked about it: “Donny, that shirt looks just like your dad’s shirt,” he said.
My reply: “Yes, except Dad’s has a pocket on the sleeve where you can put a pack of cigarettes,” I responded.
“So,” he responded jovially, “what brand of cigarettes do you smoke, Donny?”
At this point my father cut into the conversation with a statement that placed a permanent imprint on me: “Donny doesn’t smoke ANY brand of cigarettes,” my father said emphatically, “and I don’t just beat the hell out of him!”
They both laughed maniacally.
Strong, impressionable words. Exactly the kind of message I needed at a time that made a difference.
As a trained teacher I know now that research shows corporal punishment doesn’t change behavior, it only stops bad behavior if administered immediately when inappropriate behavior is happening. Anytime my father issued corporal punishment to me it came with a lecture about why he was doing it and a measured administration according to the severity of the infraction deserving this ultimate act. The threat of it was usually enough to cause an immediate modification of my behavior.
In this case, it has had a lifelong impact.
But who am I to impose my standard on other people, even the person closest to me for now nearly one-third of my life? Too many other variables are in this formula, and the habit of constantly having to buy cigarettes, of constantly losing lighters and having to look for them, of that need beyond any other need, has become simply a background noise in the daily cycle of life.
So here we are. The wonderful Eagle River neighbors who all rallied to bring us meals. The church family who has also been there for any need we may have. We are now in a different life challenge in which time is precious and yet ever more difficult. Cathy’s underlying natures are now coming forward, her need to be in control of her own situation is more pronounced, and I am committed to stay ahead of the situation to the greatest degree possible.
But it isn’t possible.
Cathy has always been in control! She ran three branches of Wells Fargo Bank in Juneau, balancing all of those branches daily with teller lines taking in money and handing it out, with drive-up stations and teller machines, all working in a system of debits and credits. It made my headache to think about it. And, she still to this day manages every aspect of our finances.
Our home has always been like a 5-star hotel; immaculate. I’m a cluttery guy, myself. In Juneau, during the administration of Tony Knowles I once asked Cat: “Why do you have to keep the house so clean? The governor isn’t going to show up unexpectedly—especially THIS governor!”
She had a sense of humor then.
I had met Tony Knowles when he and Susan first arrived in Anchorage in a green Chevrolet and I had painted the apartment they first moved into. Later, I designed Tony’ brochure for his first run for public office—the Anchorage Assembly. Our differences in political philosophy become evident, however, once he became governor and I had rehabilitated myself from youthful liberal political groupthink.
Instructional note: When you see that you are on a wrong path–an addiction or a way of thinking–you can change your fate by anticipating where you are going and making free will decisions to change. You might have to do it incrementally, or you might go “cold turkey,” but change is always possible to a person with firm values. Education is all about changing thinking, and that is why we have seen a major national shift away from the use of tobacco in this country through public awareness campaigns.
It has been a year since Cat’s diagnosis and our life has continued to be robust and full of activity despite her frailties and continuous need for treatments. The cancer moved to her brain a few months ago—requiring “gamma knife” treatments, too, and her behavior is sometimes a challenge for me to manage. I know I must be strong and not reactive. After an amazing trip to Juneau and back, our home is still in chaos a week after our return, and Cat seems helpless to stay on one group of tasks until they are completed. She is angry.
I am perplexed.
Donn Liston first went to Juneau as a legislative aide in 1983 and remained there 20 years. After becoming certified as a classroom teacher in 2003 he and his wife returned to Anchorage where he taught primarily Adult Basic Education until 2017 when he accepted a position as staff to the representative from Eagle River. This column is intended to be instructional and provide insight into how our state government is run through the eyes of someone who has watched it from various perches over decades. To reach Donn, email: email@example.com.