Coping With Cancer: The Hardest Part

By Margaret Nyman

November 1, 2009

Life has changed dramatically in the last 24 hours. Nate’s pain has increased at phenomenal speed, and we’ve had trouble keeping ahead of it with the hospice drugs. Yesterday, from around 3 p.m. until 3:30 in the morning, he was extremely agitated, attempting to get out of the hospital bed with energy so forceful we needed the adult boys to “convince” him he could no longer stand on his stick-thin legs.

As we talked repeatedly on the phone with the hospice nurses, we decreased the intervals between medicine doses until we were administering one thing or another every hour. During our struggle to determine how best to overwhelm his skyrocketing abdominal pain, the nurse decided to visit.

Her summary statement was, “He’s shutting down, one organ at a time, and is very close to the end. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. Men hang on longer than women and wait to slip away until their wives are not in the room.”

I told her I wanted to be sitting next to him holding his hand if I could, when he died. “If that’s important to you, then do that, but be sure your words give him permission to leave you.”

She assisted and directed us in changing the Depends and washing him, pointing out the bluish toenails and fingernails, as well as pooled blood at his knees, back and palms. She also changed his white t-shirt. Just as we were wondering how she’d get the old one off without upsetting him, she said, “We have a trick for that,” and pulled out a giant scissors. Even after the soiled shirt came off in four pieces, she continued to use her scissors to cut the clean shirt up the back, leaving the neck band intact to hold the whole thing together.

“Voila,” she said. “As good as any hospital gown.”

Mary offered to stay the night, and we sent everyone else to bed with a promise to wake them up “if anything happened.” Dozing here and there between 3:30 and 7 a.m. in chairs pulled up to his bed, we each kept an ear open toward his gravelly breathing.

As the light of dawn came through the window, his throat and mouth were filled with an ugly grey phlegm causing him to choke and panic. We called hospice again, and the nurse returned, showing us how to place drops under his tongue to decrease bodily fluids including the ones in his throat. She remained calm throughout the process over a 90-minute period, even as Nate struggled, until gradually his body responded to the drug, allowing him to breathe easier.

As I write now, at midnight, oxygen is helping him, and medicine every three hours is holding back his pain. He’s sleeping peacefully, pink-cheeked from a 105-degree fever as his body tries to cool itself down.  We are thankful for his communication yesterday with each of our kids and several others while he was still alert and talking. They were able to give love and receive it, to share hugs and kisses and express gratitude. I’ll never forget how he worked to stretch out his thin arms to receive each child, winking here and there at things they said, using this creative way to stay in the conversation, since he can no longer talk. Today those scenes could not have taken place.

This afternoon as Nate slept, the younger girls and I had a great conversation about what we’ll be feeling when we stand next to Nate’s non-breathing, cooling body. As the tears poured forth, we talked about their father’s point of view. “We’ll all be crying,” I said, “but where he is, he’ll be happier than ever before. Let’s do our best to think about all that good stuff.” They nodded, and we all cried.

As I hold Nate’s hand and watch him sleep, I search for a way to put this heavenly phenomenon into earthly understanding, so have pictured God putting the finishing touches on his dwelling place. Right about now he’s unfurling the rugs and putting fresh flowers on the heavenly tables. Nate’s prepared home (mentioned in John 14) is almost ready.

God knows what he’s doing within Nate’s body and in the lives of the others under our roof. He is perfecting his plans minute by minute, and we are trying to follow his lead rather than usurp it. I am keenly aware that our Lord has a specific moment in mind, planned from before Nate was born, when he will pluck him from this world and escort him into the next. No matter what we do or don’t do, that moment will not change.

As we go into another watchful night of waiting and wondering when and how Nate will separate from his earthly existence, we hover between exhaustion and anticipation. As Nelson said tonight, however it works out, it will all be good.

If Nate could talk, he might say the same thing as Timothy did in the New Testament: “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near.”

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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