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15 Jul

Unexpected developments – It’s strange. There are times when we think we have everything under control, when we think that everything is going according to plan, and then life just barges in through the front door, without even knocking, and reminds us in no uncertain terms that the universe does not in fact revolve around us.

“I feel like my fingers are made of wood and I’m trying to squeeze words out of stone.”

Last Saturday was one of those times. I had spent most of the previous day at an academic conference, and in the evening I met my wife for dinner with some of her students. We stayed late and didn’t get home until well after midnight, and the next morning we slept in. When I woke up my wife wasn’t there, but she came down soon after, and she was crying. My own personal hell would be to have to watch my wife cry continuously—it feels like the world is falling apart around me and there’s nothing I can do about it. I knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t bother asking what it was. I knew she would tell me when she regained her composure. So I just held her and waited. Finally, she said: “Mom has cancer.”

I was shocked. I suppose cancer is one of those things that you just can’t prepare for, one of those things that will always take you by surprise. I didn’t know what to say—there really was nothing to say. My wife eventually went on to say that the hospital had called the day before to tell her mother to come in immediately for testing to make sure, but they were pretty sure it was cancer: adenocarcinoma, they said. I looked it up at Wikipedia, and right there at the top it says: “It is malignant by definition.” I felt even more helpless.

After the initial shock wore off, we quickly realized that our upcoming trip to the States (we were supposed to leave today) was going to become very difficult. Even if things went well and the cancer could be removed completely by surgery, my wife would still have to be around to take care of things around the house, cook meals, etc. I called my mother to let her know, but I was surprised to find that I couldn’t say the words. I opened my mouth, but my throat grew tight and I could feel the tears in my eyes. I knew that my mother was waiting on the other end of the line, and I could hear in the way she was breathing that she knew something was wrong and was preparing herself for the worst. I wanted to just say it, because I didn’t want her to have to go through what I had just gone through, but it took me a few moments to pull myself together again.

I did finally tell her, and my mom set the prayer machine in motion. She’s very good at praying, most likely because she has three sons. It felt better to know that she would be praying.

We held out the hope that maybe it wasn’t cancer, that maybe it was something else, and as the days went by the mood in the family improved considerably. Saturday was the toughest, as we were all still in shock, but even on Sunday my mother-in-law seemed to be in better spirits. Even if it was cancer, we felt, the outlook was pretty good. For one, the doctors had detected no cancer the year before, which we hoped would mean that it was still in the early stages. Also, the cancer is in the uterus/cervical region (I’m really not sure exactly where it is: in Korean the area is called “jagunggyeongbu,” with “jagung” meaning “uterus” and “gyeongbu” meaning “cervix,” but I don’t have enough medical knowledge to figure out what exactly that means), which is said to be a lot better than cancer in other areas.

Obviously, though, the best possible result would be if it turned out to be benign, and my wife’s parents insisted that we hold on to our plane tickets until the test results came back. In reality, though, we were all preparing for the news that it was cancer. That was probably why it wasn’t as big a shock when the test results came back and we found it that it was indeed cancer. We were all hoping for a different result, but I guess this is what we expected to happen.

My mother-in-law is going in tomorrow for more detailed tests to determine how far along the cancer is, and whether or not it has spread. This is the most important part, obviously, since it will be a lot easier to treat if it is caught early and hasn’t spread. Given the fact that she was supposedly cancer-free last year, we’re expecting that it will still be in the early stages, and honestly I don’t really want to think about the other possibilities. I don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait for the results this time, but right now the waiting seems to be the hardest part. I guess it’s more about not knowing and being stuck in limbo.

I don’t know why I’m writing this. Most of the people who are close to me already know, and I’m not really sure what the point is in telling the internet about it. Maybe this is a sort of purging for me. I don’t feel purged. Not yet, at least. I feel like my fingers are made of wood and I’m trying to squeeze words out of stone. My thoughts don’t seem to flow as usual, and the sentences fall onto the screen with a dull thud. What’s done is done, though. This will be a shorter entry than usual, mainly because I have nothing else to say. I thought I was going to write some great treatise on the meaning of life—something deep and profound—but instead all I’ve done is just recount events, and dryly at that.

So, abrupt as it may be, that’s all for today.

Update (17 July): My mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital yesterday and had some general testing done. This morning she is being tested in more detail (MRI, etc.). I’m not sure when the results of these tests will come back, but she has already been scheduled for surgery on Wednesday. This has less to do with the seriousness of her condition than it does with the fact that we have a “connection” of sorts with the doctor in charge, and he’s fast-tracking things for us, so to speak. So far, so good.

Update (21 July): Surgery was performed yesterday, and the doctors said they were able to remove all of the cancer. It had grown quite large, but it hadn’t spread to any other organs, which is fortunate. The larger the cancer, though, the greater the chance that some cancer cells may have gotten into the surrounding tissue. The latest test results will be back in about a week and will determine what type of treatment is needed, if any.

Until then, though, my mother-in-law will be recovering and trying to regain her strength after the surgery. She was still affected by the anesthetics when I saw her after the surgery yesterday, but this morning she seemed to be doing much better. The doctors say she is recovering quickly.

Final update (29 July): My mother-in-law will be coming home from the hospital tomorrow. Final biopsy results showed no spreading of the cancer, but she will be receiving radiation treatment for a month to ensure that she does not go into remission. The worst is now behind us. Once again, thanks to everyone who offered their encouragement during this frightening time.

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