Coping With Cancer: I Can’t See the Future

Nate Nyman

October 3, 2009

Nate’s pain woke him with the message it was time for his meds. After he took the pills, we spent time chatting in bed, waiting for relief to come. We talked about when the kids were little, remembering funny things they’d said. Then suddenly he became introspective.

“Life’s interesting,” he said. “It’s like you come up against a wall that’s 10 feet tall but can’t see over it. On the other side is your future. You want to see it, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t.”

I believe he’s beginning to absorb the truth of his pancreatic cancer, the raw statistic that of 37,000 people who had this disease last year in our country, 95 percent of them died within their year of diagnosis. Nate is a numbers man and understands bad odds when he reads them.

“I want you to dig out my insurance policies today so I can refresh my mind about them,” he said. “We also need to find my will and re-read it. And I want to be sure you have power of attorney. That’ll make everything easier.”

I wanted to sit bolt upright and yell, “Stop! What about the other 5 percent? Maybe that’ll be you!” But something inside my head said, “Don’t interrupt. Let him say what’s on his mind.” It was God I’m sure, making me bite my lip. When Nate finished talking, I agreed to find the files.

After a morning nap, he reopened the subject. “Can you hunt for those documents now?” I found them and then sat quietly with my Coke Zero, watching Nate study the papers. He knit his brow and then nodded slightly.

“I think you’ll be OK, even if you live into your nineties.”

“It’s awful to think of you not being here,” I said, fighting tears but trying to sound like we were having an everyday conversation. “Maybe we could take a trip in the near future, like to Greenfield Village or someplace.” But both of us knew my suggestion wasn’t compatible with the immediate future we could already see.

“Sure,” he said, wanting to make me happy. “Good idea.”

He rested his head back on the chair, folded his hands over his chest and closed his eyes.

“You know,” he said, “even if I could jump up and get a quick look over that wall into my future, by the time I really got there, it would have changed anyway.” And in that statement, there was a letting go of the pressure to control what he knows he can’t.

Twice in recent days our son Nelson has quoted this phenomenal Proverb:

“A man’s heart devises his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”

Nate has made his plans. They include insurance, a will, power of attorney and other tangibles. But today he accepted the truth that he can’t control what actually happens. It’ll be God who says when Nate’s earthly steps stop and his heavenly ones begin.
Guest contributor Margaret Nyman takes us step by step through the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Follow her posts by subscribing to the Coping With Cancer RSS feed. Nyman’s personal blog is at

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