Dealing with a Cancer Diagnosis

By Tina Withrow for LIVING WELL Magazine

I met Jimmy during his second cancer crisis. The first was lymphoma, which he conquered in his early 30s. The second was sarcoma of his hand in his 40s. Well meaning doctors had told him he would have to have his hand amputated and he contacted me to discuss his options.

When I told him that there are always options, he firmly told me that he was a golfer and guitar player and that amputating his hand, just to get rid of his cancer, was not ever going to happen.

I knew the moment I met him in person that I liked him. He had attitude and he cussed like a sailor––and didn’t apologize to anyone for it. I didn’t hold it against him too much when I found out he that he was not a Dallas Cowboy fan, but a certified, in your face, glow in the dark, rabid Pittsburgh Penguins hockey, and Notre Dame football fan.

You could see that while Jimmy was a ball of fire, so was his wife Annette, an itty-bitty thing with will power and determination. She loved her husband and failure was not an option. She was determined to get him through cancer no matter what it took. She could write things down at lightning speed and had lined up her questions that needed to be answered like the best administrative assistant on the planet. It was never his cancer, it was their cancer. I came to be in awe of her tenacity. She was the behind-the-scenes historian, crew chief, cheerleader, calm in the storm, wonder woman. To see Jimmy wander and roam the cancer center was something. He would organize behind-the-scenes shenanigans to liven up the chemo room and rattle the nurses. He organized a rat pack group and they would crank up the music and play air guitar or do “pole dances” with their IV poles.

As we came to know and love each other, we also came to fight like cats and dogs. Me, trying to tell him what to do, what he needed to do, and him telling me to take a hike. You see, Jimmy was like a lot of men. His definition of a man was someone who loved his family, worked hard to support them and if he couldn’t do that, then never mind.

Triple bypass, three more cancer diagnosis and the theme was always the same. No surrender, no retreat. He became my poster child for never giving up. I would have him talk to someone newly diagnosed or speak at local cancer events. He was living proof that you can thrive in spite of what statistics tell you.

The fifth diagnosis came with a vengeance. After surgery, chemo, radiation, and more surgery, it was clear that his treatment plan was not working. We needed a plan for his end of life care. When I proposed this to him, he was angry! He told me I was giving up on him. We made all the needed arrangements and called in the troops. Family, friends, neighbors, and a good medical team to take care of him at home. I went by one day to find that he had been playing air guitar, dancing with his wife, and loving on his kiddos. Now, one would think that walking into Jimmy and Annette’s house you would find utter despair and sadness. Not so! Peace, laughter, and acceptance. Grace had replaced the anger. In abundance! He asked me to take care of Annette before he left. This story is not about his death, but about his life, his spunk, his legacy, his in your face, and “Take that, cancer!” attitude. I shall carry it with me forever.

If you or someone you love needs help navigating cancer or any healthcare crisis, please contact patient advocate Tina Withrow at 214-546-2215 or via email at twithrow@health-sync.net.