Coping With Cancer: Hanging Out at Home

By Margaret Nyman

October 20, 2009

Less than one month ago, we didn’t know a thing about pancreatic cancer, and we certainly didn’t know it would come crashing into our family like it has. But today as I walk through our cottage, I see a hospital bed and bedside table, a cane, a wheelchair, a shower seat with hand-held shower arm, a “lift” chair to help a person get up, a giant bag of pill bottles, rubber gloves, a urinal and (being delivered tomorrow) a triple-purpose commode seat. Most shocking of all, leaning against Nate’s chair, is a thick, navy notebook full of pages that says “Hospice Home Care.” Unbelievable.

Today we got acquainted with two new hospice ladies, one a social worker and the other a nurse. The social worker began her process of getting to know our family by asking many questions. When she finished, she offered their massage service to Nate, who hesitated. His entire trunk from chin to legs is sensitive to the touch, coupled with his fear that if touched too hard, it will hurt. Every organ is affected by the cancer, and the thought of being pressed by a masseuse was about as appealing as climbing into a boxing ring.

Since Nate was too tired to explain, I described what was going on inside his body, stumbling for a succinct reason why he wouldn’t want a massage. Linnea interrupted and said, “Mom, just say ‘no’. You’re allowed.”

Her comment was a relief. I’m learning that hospice is all about making our loved ones comfortable, not just Nate but all 13 of us. Before the social worker finished, she was offering me the massage service. I looked at Linnea who said, “Say ‘yes’!”

Today’s nurse gave Nate a physical exam, and his blood pressure was good, 122 over 85. He’s stopped losing weight, although I think it’s because he’s holding fluid in his abdomen. Having become bone-thin, he suddenly has a bulging stomach that feels like a giant water balloon. The rest of him is getting leaner and leaner.

One leg and foot are also filling with fluid and when asked, Nate acknowledged it did hurt. I told the nurse he never complained, and this was a perfect example. His sock gripped too tightly and made an indented circle of constriction where the elastic gripped. “Can we cut them?” the nurse asked, and I disappeared to find a scissors.

While Nate watched with a frown, I cut a 4-inch line down the front of his sock so it could slide on without being too tight. “Let’s cut the other one, too, so he’ll have a matched pair,” I said, trying to ease Nate’s fears.

The nurse also ordered a different mattress for the hospital bed, one that would “undulate” while he slept, to keep his skin happy. (I am jealous over that mattress.) The bed motor is purring, a fan is humming, tiny green lights are flashing and the whole place has all the conveniences of a hospital. But we are at home. The greatest blessing of today is recognizing that.

Our family hope is that we can keep Nate at home with all of us in these peaceful, familiar surroundings for the duration. To hear children laughing, to smell stew in the oven, to see the glory of colored leaves out the windows and to hold hands with the ones you love most are the delights of these days. But we’ve long since given up trying to control our uncontrollable circumstances. As the Good Book says, “The Lord’s plans stand firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken.” If God wants to pluck Nate from this cottage and put him in a hospital, he’ll do it for a good reason. And whatever God does, we are behind him.

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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