Red "what if?" words painted on gray brick wallWhat have I done? As if I was the only one that had anything to do with it. The diagnosis was Stage 1A lung cancer; the prescribed treatment was to remove the center lobe of the right side and in a few months go back and remove a few little pieces on the left side. This was supposed to stop the cancer. To be fair, the surgeon and oncologist made it clear that this was going to be a recurring condition. We’d be able to treat it as it occurred by having MRI’s every six months to check for growths and proceed accordingly. It sounded like a plan, but Steve succumbed to this miserable disease six years later—three years ago.

            A close friend of ours was diagnosed with the same condition at the same time. She’s still alive. But at what price?

Steve and I had been to see the same surgeon our friend used and had opted not to go with her. We just didn’t click—she was accomplished enough, but we both felt she was arrogant and judgmental. Not a good mix for a lasting relationship. Every health care recipient is different, and my husband needed to feel good about whoever was treating him; there needed to be mutual respect between doctor and patient and I felt his comfort level was essential to successful treatment. But our friend is still alive—again I ask—what have I done?

What if we’d gone the other route? What if we’d opted for surgery with someone whose credentials were stellar but whose bedside manner was lacking in humanity? Would Steve still be alive? What ifs can make you crazy.


I think, what if he was still alive but suffering? Our friend has been in and out of the hospital for the three years since Steve’s been gone. She’s lost half her body weight. She’s had every conceivable treatment—chemo, radiation, ablation and countless surgeries. Over-radiation resulted in serious problems in her throat and digestive tract. This left her on a feeding tube for six months before her last surgery, and going into that at half her original weight was less than ideal. She lost another twenty pounds after surgery during her hospitalization and although the operation was intended to eliminate the need for it, she’s still using a feeding tube. They’re telling her they hope she’ll heal well enough to finally be rid of it, but that will be after yet another surgery and another recovery period.

No one outside a small circle of friends knew that Steve was ill. He was healthy, happy (as he could be under the circumstances) and robust until three weeks before he died. He never lost his hair. The weight he lost was weight he’d been trying to lose for years, so people who knew him were just happy for him.

Steve was blessed. He’d been doing a public access television call-in show for thirty-five years, once a week for an hour; and for that hour, he forgot all his troubles. He wasn’t sick, in treatment, waiting for a test or for test results. He was still funny, fast and brilliant and that was all that mattered. His fans had no idea what was going on when he wasn’t “on camera.” For that hour, everything was back to normal. It kept him going from week to week to week. Near the end of his life, he was taking a lot of pain medication, and I began to see that his mind was working a little slower than usual. I also knew that this man, who was vain only about his hair—both his haircut and facial hair grooming—wouldn’t want to be perceived as less than quick-witted and sharp-tongued by his audience. When I saw that happening, I knew we were close to the end.

What if? What if he didn’t have that show to look forward to every week? What if his treatment had caused hair loss? What if he’d had to endure countless procedures to keep him alive…but with a dreadfully compromised quality of life? How would I have been able to cope with a slow demise? What if he became a shadow of his very vital, former self?

Our friend was recently hospitalized for sixty days. During that time, she was very close to death but cognizant enough to make her own decisions regarding additional surgeries and treatments. She is home now, still on a feeding tube and trying to gain enough weight to be healthy enough for additional surgery that she is opting for.

There are so many “what ifs” in our lives. I’ve always prided myself on being decisive. I gather copious information, learn it well, consider all the circumstances around a given situation and commit to a decision. I’m not wishy-washy. So when “what ifs” pop up in my life, I’m angry and frustrated. When my mind is swimming with regret over “what ifs,” I go to my beloved “Serenity Prayer” and remind myself I must remember to accept the things I cannot change. I try and recall why we made the decisions we made together and let go of the whirling “what ifs.” I need to remind myself it was “us” then and I am not responsible.

The answer to “What have I done?” I did good! I was a loving, caring, attentive, smart, prepared, patient, fearless partner and caregiver. So when I look at my friend who is still alive, I accept that this was her path; we took another route. And I’m satisfied that’s okay.


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