Coping With Cancer: The Excruciating Truth

By Margaret Nyman

October 13, 2009

Now that Nate has 10 radiation treatments under his belt, we’ve gotten acquainted with the 11 a.m. crowd in the waiting room. Each of us has the same time slot five days a week. Some arrive in wheelchairs and others with canes or walkers. One elderly gentleman has a gleaming cane of clear Lucite with a thick, see-through handle. Gorgeous. Another man brings a white flannel blanket, wrapping himself in its comfort as he awaits his turn on the ice-cold table. A young mom, waiting for her husband to finish treatment, brings their 4-year-old daughter with her bag of crayons and coloring books.

Creative head gear abounds, keeping bald heads warm. We see everything from baseball caps to fancy scarves, knit hats and head wraps. The waiting room is freshly decorated in dusty green with cushy seating for 32. Making sure coffee, tea and hot chocolate are available for all of us, a receptionist keeps the pots fresh with new brew. A flat-screen TV tuned to CNN reports softly, but no one is paying attention.

Looking around the room, I wonder about everyone’s story. All are fighting a battle they might not win. The bottom line is that they want to beat the greatest enemy of their lives: death.

Several precious friends of ours are praying for Nate’s complete healing from his metastasized pancreatic cancer. Although I have no doubt about God’s ability to do that, he probably won’t. And if he doesn’t, I trust he has excellent reasons. We’ve already experienced some of them as our family has drawn together and shared unnumbered blessings from each other and countless others.

I’ve polled all the friends I know whose mates have died of cancer. Some of those spouses never accepted their own mortality, even on their death beds. Others believed they would die, based on the probabilities. Which is better?

I believe Nate’s cancer is the beginning of the end. Before we’re done with this whole mess, I may swing around to the opposite point of view, but for today, my reasoning goes like this:

If we expect death and receive healing, what unbounded joy we will have!

If we expect healing and get death, priceless opportunities will have been lost.

When a dying person finally gives in to the excruciating reality that earthly life is ending, not one moment is squandered after that. The rest of us might bop along through our days, filing “eternity” in a category labeled “some day.” In reality, all of us are up against eternity, but the terminally ill are the only ones thinking seriously about it.

Nate’s alert moments are fewer each day. He has excellent plans to have one-on-one time with each of his children and with me, to get some significant things said. He’s thinking, planning, jotting down words on Post-it notes. I pray he’ll have time to say and do all he’s hoping he can. His words will be cleansing for him and life-altering for us.

Before he gets to that, however, he’s trying to put other categories of his life in order. He’s given me the phone numbers to call when he’s gone. He’s put my name on his bank account. He’s drawn up a power of attorney for me. He’s straining hard to think straight while taking narcotics to deaden pain.

His priceless plans are being acted upon only because he believes he is soon going to die. If he was focusing on a miraculous healing, these important tasks would remain undone, just like our friends who died saying, “I can still beat this.” In those cases, there were no life challenges, no thank yous, no handing off of responsibilities, no goodbyes.

One of the Psalms tells us God sees us before we’re born, and every moment of our lives is laid out before a single day passes. If we believe that, pressure is lifted. Recently, Nate was sitting quietly, his fingers steepled on his chest when he said, “If I was healed of this cancer, I know I’d be a changed man. But at some point down the road I’d just have to go through it all over again.”

It was a telling statement and, I believe, an acknowledgment that the number of his days is soon to finish.

Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at

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