When I click my Internet Explorer, it automatically opens up to an AOL-News site, and I quickly click on my Favorites list to CNN, the constant news network. CNN’s web-page would always have a banner headline, along with a significant story covered on its main panel on the left. Usually it was a political topic about Obama said this or that, or these days, it was the rains in Iowa or tornados in Kansas or another earthquake. The topic tonight was “Cancer Doctor Dodges Death Talk.”
It was a topic that immediately caught my attention, because my sister died from cancer last year, and because we’ve had the “Death Talk,” with the doctors on multiple occasions. My sister, Jackie, was a healthy 44-year old single mom, vibrant, energetic, and without doubt our Dad’s favorite (she was the youngest of our 4 brothers and sisters and would never miss sending him a Father’s Day greeting).
In August, 2006, she suddenly complained of severe headaches. After multiple trips to the emergency rooms both in Japan and in the States, doctors were finally able to isolate the cause—a brain tumor wrapped around nerves adjacent to her pituitary gland. After a biopsy and two weeks of lab work, they found it to be a highly metastasized form of chondrosarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer with an unknown origin.
During the initial treatment, an oncologist visited us and gave us the prognosis--that Jackie had little chance to survive beyond a few months, not to mention a few years. But she recommended that we see a specialist on chondrosarcoma.
Doctor J., as I shall call him, was the ultimate gentleman. He was caring and did his best to give us hope. He said that the radiation which she had started seemed to be working on the brain cancer, and he said that if we could control the tumor in the brain, everything else could be possible. The plan was to do focused radiation (because the tumor was inaccessible by surgery), and then treat the primary and the entire body with chemotherapy later.
Jackie recovered to the extent that she could go home, walk, enjoy time with her 6-year old son. She had hope. But Dr. J. was also realistic. He reminded us that things could change, and when the chemo-therapy resulted in an adverse reaction in her, he told us that we should make sure that Jackie took care of everything she needed to, including her will, how her child will be raised—the “Death Talk”. It was an especially difficult time for my sister, because she was one of the most outgoing and optimistic persons in the world.
But it was good that Dr. J, as kind as he was, told us to take care of the business of dying. Because if we didn’t take care of that, our sister’s death would have been compounded a hundred-fold by the complexities of legal and financial wrangling typical of these events. But perhaps the most important part was that it helped our family spend some of the most important quality time with each other in our final moments with her. (I chronicled my sister’s battle with cancer on a web-site.)
I bring this up because this is Father’s Day, and I remember that my sister was our Dad’s favorite. I also bring it up because tomorrow, my late sister’s son—my nephew—who had moved to Japan after his Mommy's passing is coming to LA to visit me for the summer.
They might call it “Death Talk”, but perhaps it’s the most important talk a doctor can have with a patient. It was actually a “Life Talk” for us because of the significance it had on the final days of my sister and our family, and of course, on the final days that she was able to spend with her only son.