Coping With Cancer: The Comedian

By Margaret Nyman

October 24, 2009

Nate, the serious lawyer, is morphing into a comedian these days. Unfortunately, his “jokes” are unintentional. Yesterday he asked if there were any male-female couples in our immediate family that he hadn’t yet met. I quizzed him again and again to be sure I’d understood him correctly, but I had. Finally I said, “You’ve met each of them: Nelson, Lars, Linnea, Adam, Klaus, Hans, Katy, Louisa and Birgitta.”

He responded with satisfaction and a nod, “Good. I just wanted to be sure.”

I had to laugh, but at the same time it wasn’t laughable. His comments in the last few days are a bit off, not always, but often. I try not to think about the possibility of his cancer being responsible, but my mind goes back to a conversation I had privately with his doctor two weeks ago. I’d asked him if the cancer could go to Nate’s brain. Instead of giving me a “yes” or “no”, Dr. Abrams had said, “It’s in his pancreas, liver, lungs, bones and blood. What do you think?”

We’ve watched Nate lose weight and strength, lose his appetite and energy, and lose the ability to write and read. But watching him lose common sense and prior knowledge is the worst of all.

Nate has always been a walking, talking encyclopedia. We didn’t need Britannica or World Book with him sitting at our dinner table. He’s been exceptional at remembering history’s dates and places, names and faces. Where has all that gone? Is his mental slate gradually being erased?

Yesterday we were expecting a visit from one of the hospice nurses, and he asked me seven times who was coming and at what time. This is a man who never forgot an appointment and kept his whole life straight with a few Post-it notes and a very sharp brain.

Sometimes he recognizes he’s said something off the wall. When that happens, he’ll shake his head, as if to disperse the fog, and say, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Hospice tells us he’ll soon cross over a mental line after which he won’t realize when he gets his facts mixed up. This, they say, will be a relief to us and a gift to him. He may come up with all kinds of interesting knowledge and counsel we never knew was in him. On the other hand, he could end up saying whatever is on his mind without any social filter, possibly causing offense or embarrassment. These adventures lie ahead of us in the not-to-distant future.

I’ve asked two doctors and several nurses how we should handle this. All have said we ought to “get into the fantasy” with him. Attempting to bring him back to reality will only agitate him further.

A wise proverb says, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad.”

Maybe our “good words” will be those that go along with Nate’s confusion. Such a tactic might decrease his anxiety and even our own about what is causing him to lose mental ground. As always, it does no good to dwell on the losses. Instead we’ll continue to appreciate the Nate we are privileged to have today.

Lately, it’s become difficult for him to work his cell phone, but this afternoon he managed to pull up a voice mail left by a friend. “I should call him back,” he said. “Can you get him on the line for me?”

I dialed the number and put the phone to his ear. He listened quietly, eyes locked with mine in an expression of deep thought. All of a sudden he said, “I just really want to get this over with.”

I was shocked. Was he referencing his battle with cancer? Inviting him to talk further, I said, “Get what over with?”

Screwing up his face like a little boy who’d just sucked on a lemon, he said, “This phone call.” I laughed and took the phone from him, snapping it shut.

“Done,” I said.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

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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