What my husband’s cancer taught me
April 22 2016 10:57 PM
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lKerry McKean Kelly ([email protected]) is on the board of Kelly’s Heroes, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that raises money for pancreatic cancer research.

By Kerry McKean Kelly/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS


It’s been nearly a year since my husband, Steve, died of pancreatic cancer at age 55. And still, there’s a magnet on the side of our refrigerator with the phone number of the oncology hotline and Steve’s wonderful nurse, Ellen.
I’m not quite sure why I haven’t removed that magnet. It might be that I just can’t accept the finality that would bring.
I imagine part of it is the fact that Steve’s handwriting is on it, and anything that was part of Steve has become a precious relic to me.
But also, when I am honest about my emotions, I have some strangely fond memories of the time I spent at Steve’s side as he battled cancer.
That probably sounds horrible, so I’ll try to explain.
As awful and mind-numbing as that period was, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more connected to my family or more focused on what’s really important in life.
And in retrospect, that’s something important that cancer taught me. I wish to God that I had learned that lesson in a different way. But maybe that was another of Steve’s gifts to us, among a wealth of wonderful things he brought to our lives.
Steve was just 53 when he was diagnosed. He was one of the fittest, healthiest people I’ve ever known. He went to the gym regularly. He ran a 10-mile race just four weeks before his diagnosis.
I will never forget the day we heard the prognosis from the oncologist. Steve’s cancer was stage 4; it had spread to his liver. He had less than a year to live. I’m not sure how we navigated from the doctor’s office downstairs to our car in the parking garage. But I do remember realisation washing over me. I literally doubled over at the waist, finding it impossible to breathe. I was angry. I paced in fury. And then we got in the car for the ride home and started planning.
We talked about how we were going to tell our two girls, then ages 19 and 15. Steve talked about financial planning to provide for the girls and me after he was gone.
But mostly, he talked about how he wanted to live his life in the time he had left. To the outside world, it wasn’t dramatically different.
He wanted to work at his newspaper job for as long as he could. We wanted to take a relaxing family vacation, but nothing too extravagant. We wanted our girls to carry on with their busy teenage lives.
And we wanted to savour the small things at home - our porch swing, the deer that sometimes wandered into our yard, watching a game together on the couch.
Steve started treatment - an aggressive chemotherapy clinical trial at Johns Hopkins. It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our house, and the day was long. First lab work, then waiting for the lab results, then an appointment with the oncologist or nurse-practitioner.
Then waiting for the pharmacy to prepare his meds. And then, about five hours of chemo infusion.
On chemo days, the alarm clock went off at 4:45am, on the road by 5:10. It was usually 12 hours before we arrived back home. That was once a week.
Those days were exhausting, but that’s not what I remember.
I remember packing a cooler with a variety of foods because I didn’t know what might appeal to Steve’s chemo-compromised stomach. I think I actually enjoyed the challenge of coming up with new enticing snacks for him.
I remember getting behind the steering wheel, watching Steve catch a bit more sleep in the passenger seat, and putting every other concern out of my mind. It felt good to do nothing but take care of him.
I remember rubbing Steve’s leg or massaging his neck as we waited for scan results or as the infusion nurses tried to find a good vein. I remember fetching him warm blankets and running to the cafeteria to see what kind of soup they had.
I definitely will never forget the kindness, compassion and good humour of the nurses and the entire patient care team. They were absolutely wonderful, and I miss them too.
On the ride home, relieved to have the day behind us, we cranked up Steve’s playlist for a time, before he tucked a pillow under his head and caught a nap. It was quiet. I was with my husband for the whole entire day, and I was thankful for that.
So yes, here I am all those months later and I miss crawling out of bed before sunrise and driving to Baltimore with Steve. I miss walking into our house exhausted on chemo days and curling up on the couch together.
I miss the people at the hospital, who know better than anyone how awesome and strong and appreciative Steve was as prescribed toxins flowed through his body.
That’s what cancer taught me - to focus on the people I love and enjoy them. Enjoy just being with them. To cherish life’s nice and simple moments. To put all of the other demands and stresses of life in their proper, lesser places. And to know that even when you’ve lost someone incredible in your life, you have been blessed with a love that will be part of you forever.




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