Beware, this is long.
When Dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in January of this year, I became a member of a club I never wanted to join. It’s the cancer club, and you become an involuntary, permanent member if you or a loved one has ever had this evil disease. You suddenly realize, with that one phone call, that one diagnosis, that your life has now separated into two distinct parts – before the disease, when you were living your life blissfully unaware of anything wrong, and now, when your world has forever been changed. You can say goodbye to your old “normal”. I realize that my perspective and experience represents just one end of the spectrum – that of the daughter of a current cancer fighter. Talk to my dad and you’d get a whole other perspective. Talk to my mom, my sister, my grandma, my aunts and uncles, cousins – and you’d get different perspectives as well. We all love Dad from the bottom of our hearts and his diagnosis has changed all of our lives forever. I’m here to explain how it changed mine for the better.
I’ve always been Daddy’s girl. As a kid, I called my dad “Papa”, and I usually wanted to be held or comforted by him. My mom would say to my dad, “Papa, hold her.” I started to copy this and would say to my dad, with outstretched arms, “Papa, hold her!” How I wish I could remember this, but I was so young at the time! Dad also told me a story about how whenever I would fall and hurt myself, I would look to him with my big brown eyes full of tears and say “Kiss it, Papa!” This did not go over so well at a baseball game where I fell and hurt my butt. I screamed “Kiss it, Papa!” in front of a huge crowd of strangers, and Dad told me later, laughing, that there was no way that was going to happen! I still laugh when I think about how funny that must have been.
Dad was always there for me when I needed him, and even when I didn’t think I needed him. We spent many late nights during my teen years talking in the downstairs den. Many conversations revolved around why I couldn’t hang out with these certain people, or go to that certain party, etc. So many times I was a hot mess of tears, protesting why my life was so unfair. I hope I wasn’t too dramatic of a teenager. Looking back now, of course, I am so thankful for the right direction he nudged me towards. How different my life might be right now if I didn’t have such a wonderful, loving father on earth to guide me in the way my Heavenly Father also wanted me to go.
As a kid, I remember if Dad was late coming home from work (in the era before cell phones) I always assumed the worst – that he was in a car accident or something equally terrible. I always feared losing one of my parents. I would often imagine what my life would be like if something happened to my dad or mom, and I couldn’t see how I would go on living.
Dad and I are alike in so many ways. We’re both naturally quiet and reserved, both perfectionists and our own worst critics. We both are worrywarts and tend to imagine the worst. We even look a lot alike, which is something I hated to hear as a young girl growing up. “You look just like your dad,” people constantly told me. As a shy and self-conscious preteen with braces and frizzy hair, this was probably the worst thing I could be told, that I looked like a middle aged man with a mustache.
My dad is my hero. I love the fact that I literally have never heard him yell. I’ve heard him raise his voice on the rare occasion, but I really could not tell you what his “angry” voice sounds like, or what he sounds like when he yells and screams, because he has never shown it to me. I suppose if our house had ever caught fire then I might have heard it. He has amazing poise and composure. I don’t know how he does it. To people who don’t know him, he can come across as serious and maybe even intimidating, but he is the farthest thing from that. We both share a dry sense of humor, and I have plenty of text messages, inside jokes and funny stories to prove it. If there’s anyone who does not deserve to have Stage 4 cancer, it’s my dad. But if there’s anyone who could handle it in our family, it would be him, hands down.
When Dad developed a persistent cough in late 2017, I worried it was something serious. My mind immediately went to “lung cancer”, but the results of his numerous doctor visits always put me back at ease. When his bloodwork came back normal and the doctor said his lungs sounded clear, I assumed he just had a really bad cold. I was way too trusting of the doctor’s judgment, and who can blame me? He’s the one who went to medical school, not me. I realized that lung cancer was an easy jump-to-conclusion for someone as pessimistic as I apparently was!
I’ll never forget what I was doing the night of Monday, January 29th, 2018. Blake was on the last day of a business trip in Illinois, and I had just come home from work and was getting ready to go out to dinner with my parents and sister. Dad’s work at the warehouse was coming to an end since the company was moving things to Fresno, and his boss who was a brother had flown in from out of state, so we were going to all have dinner together. Dad was super tired and fatigued, as he had been lately, but we were still going to enjoy a nice night at Olive Garden as a family. I was in the living room, straightening my hair around 6 pm. My sister texted me to say that instead of going to dinner, they were taking Dad to the emergency room because he was coughing up blood and having trouble breathing. My heart absolutely sank. All the air rushed out of my lungs. I quickly threw my half-curly, half-straight hair up into a messy bun and ran out the door. I drove down the 395 going 90 miles an hour in a 70 mph zone, not caring about speed limits or police officers or anything but getting to that hospital. Along the way, I tried calling several friends, but they were at meeting and my calls went straight to voicemail. I’m sure I left some sort of blubbery, incoherent messages. I couldn’t call Blake because he was on a flight home already. I just wanted to talk to someone more than anything, and when I couldn’t get through to any human, I talked to Jehovah the whole way there.
The doctors had dad in isolation when I got to the hospital, which they explained was a precaution if he had tuberculosis. He had coughed up so much blood, in huge clots, which was sickening and heartbreaking to see. Instantly I felt a bit of relief, because now I finally had an idea of what the problem was! Of course! He either had tuberculosis or a bad case of pneumonia, and he would be sent home in no time with some antibiotics. After things settled down somewhat, I went home to get some rest and promised to return early in the morning when the doctor would have the results of his CAT scan. I was dressed for work and told Blake that he should go to work also, because at this point I was sure that Dad just had pneumonia or TB. Nobody expected the worst.
When I arrived at the hospital, they had already moved Dad to a room of his own upstairs, in isolation. Mom, Ashley and I wore masks as we visited with him. Even the doctors and nurses tending to him were wearing masks and gloves as a precaution. And then the door to his room opened and two doctors entered, both not wearing any masks. I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach at seeing this, and something did not feel right. After confirming that we were all family and after asking Dad for permission to speak freely, he spoke the 6 words that will forever be seared into my memory.
“I do not have good news.”
He went on to explain how dad had numerous tumors in his lungs, which had metastasized from a large tumor in his kidney. Stage 4 kidney cancer. He made no mention of chemotherapy or radiation. He did say that if he had caught this tumor 6 months earlier, he could have removed my dad’s kidney and he would have completely healed. But now, it was too late for that. After that grim explanation, most of his words just became a blur. I don’t even remember the rest of what he said. Later, I found out that he told my dad to get his affairs in order. I’m already an anxious person, so I spent the rest of the day taking tranquilizers and doing anything I could to just catch my breath. This could not be happening. My dad was dying. My world was ending. I immediately texted Blake something along the lines of “get here now.”
After we got more info, we realized that the situation was not so grim. This was not an automatic death sentence, and there was hope to be had. Because Dad’s particular type of cancer is not responsive to chemotherapy, we were relieved that he didn’t have to go through those brutal side effects. But the doctors here in Reno weren’t proactive about getting him treatment. I think they were waiting for him to go home and die. But that was not going to happen on our watch. We did our research and spent many tireless days and nights on the phone or e-mailing doctors, insurance companies and the like.
We finally got word that Dad was approved for a new drug that was shown to be effective for advanced renal cell carcinoma. It had just been approved by the FDA in December 2017, so the timing could not have been better. After just three months, the drug had shrunk his tumors by 50%! I’ll never forget how amazing it was to see his new scans, much clearer compared with the original scans from that night in the E.R.
After just a few months, however, we found that he wasn’t responding to the drug anymore and the tumors were growing slightly. This was such a discouraging day. But the way I looked at it was, we were just being too nice to the tumors. It was now time to get aggressive. There was always a Plan B and C if Plan A didn’t work. We just didn’t think we’d have to use it so soon.
Dad started immunotherapy treatment in August and finished a few weeks ago. The drug combo he began taking had just been approved in April. Again, amazing timing which was absolutely no coincidence. As I write this today, he has looked and felt the healthiest I’ve seen him in years. In a few short hours we will know the results of his latest scans, and learn where to go from here. But back to the part where I explain how this has impacted my life for the better.
Before Dad got sick, I realized I lived a pretty charmed life. I had the typical everyday worries of your average human being, but no major problems. I don’t think I relied on Jehovah enough, because I seemed to be getting along just fine. My biggest concern was managing my anxiety disorder. I was operating on a pretty even keel, with the occasional panic attack here and there. I was learning to manage it and seemed to be doing better than in previous years.
When Dad got sick, I prayed harder than I ever have in my life. I prayed to switch places. I prayed to wake up from what surely had to be a nightmare. I prayed that he could beat this. I honestly don’t remember if I prayed for peace of mind, but there was absolutely none to be had on the day Dad was diagnosed. At the lowest point of that day, I sat alone on the floor outside Dad’s hospital room, bawling my eyes out. I couldn’t let Dad see me this way. A kind nurse found me and asked me what was wrong, so I told her I just got news that my dad has cancer and it’s really bad. She hugged me and told me she was there for me if I needed anything. I’ll never forget her kind words and touch. I thought Tuesday would never end. It was an endless stream of visitors coming in and out, phone calls, text messages, hugs, cards, flowers, meals. I was overwhelmed with the love shown to my family in our darkest hour. I did not want to be alone, and I certainly was not. But my anxiety was swallowing me whole. I could not comprehend how I was going to get through the coming weeks and months if I could barely make it through the next minutes.
And then the next morning, a funny thing happened. I woke up with the most amazing calm I have ever felt in my entire life. It took me a few seconds to remember that I still had a sick dad, a worried mom and sister, and a long road ahead. But instead of the weight of that realization crashing over me like an angry wave, it sort of absorbed into me. I felt like I could handle it, for once. I felt like whatever would play out, good or bad, that I would be okay. It’s really hard to explain if you’ve never felt it before, but I believe what I was experiencing was the truth of the words found at Philippians 4:7. I could really feel “the peace of God” guarding my mental powers. This was absolutely not going to destroy me. This was going to make me stronger. In the days that followed, I made Philippians 4:13 my motto. I posted it on a sticky note and put it on my work computer where I would see it every day. My favorite translation of this verse is from the New American Standard Bible, which reads “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Just take a minute and think about what that verse really means. With Jehovah’s strength, you can literally do a n y t h i n g. What have you been grappling with? I know you can overcome it and let it make you, not break you. With Jehovah’s help, he will carry you and make you equal to the task in front of you. I have personally experienced this and will never forget it. I have a strength now that I never knew was in me all along. I don’t know what will happen in the coming months or years, but I know that our family is safe in Jehovah’s loving arms and we will prevail, no matter what.
P.S. This post was originally published on my former site, which you can find here: http://stefaniesmith.home.blog - I received some very sweet comments which i can't seem to transfer over to this site :(