Death is something many of us are in denial about. When we’re young we don’t think it will happen it us. As we age, we still don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. We’re told it can happen to our loved ones, or to us, at any time. Intellectually we nod in agreement but on an emotional level many of us do not get it. Until someone we love is taken from us… and than we do. How do we react when this traumatic reality pierces our veil of denial?
There are any number of reactions to a crisis or traumatic event. Most of which are valid. While far from the solution to every problem, preparation can offer a better chance to overcome and or be emotionally prepared.
A diagnosis of cancer presents a crisis first and foremost to the person receiving the diagnosis, but also to that person’s loved ones.
There can be so many levels to this. In the case when cancer is fatal, there is the process of dying before death. Focusing on the loves being left behind:
- How do they identify themselves in the absence of this person?
- How do they go through it?
- How do they recover?
- How do they move on?
These are emotional questions. There are also logistical questions to be answered as the roles played by the lost spouse have to be filled.
In her memoir, Both Sides Now, Nancy Sharp strikes a great balance writing with eloquence and heart, as she logistically lays out the step by step journey that she, her husband Brett, and their children went through.
- From Brett’s initial diagnosis of cancer.
- To the decision to have a child.
- The ups and downs of thinking the cancer is behind them.
- To excepting the diagnosis, and eventual passing.
- How Nancy and her family honored, and remembered Brett, and moved on.
I recently lost my mother to cancer and was able to relate too much of Nancy’s internal turmoil, emotions, and stages of grief that she went through.
In addition to what a cancer patient and family may go through from the disease aspect of things, the book has many messages that include: appreciation of life and the importance of going forward for anyone who has lost anyone… Regardless of the cause.
I think the book is also a good and worthwhile read as a cautionary tale for those in denial and think something like this can never happen to them.
You never know if, when, and how preparation can make a difference.
Here is my interview with Nancy:
Jeff: Can you describe the emotions you felt writing Both Sides Now? Was it cathartic? Overly emotional? Were certain parts more challenging to write than others?
Nancy: Writing Both Sides Now was definitely not cathartic! I get asked that question often. Yes, parts of it were downright painful, particularly those sections about my children in the days leading up to Brett’s death, and in those that follow. I lived with so much ongoing trauma – nearly a decade of care-giving and mourning. It was only after the book was finished that I came to see how the writing allowed me to integrate the whole of my experience in a way that I hadn’t before. In this way, it was healing.
Jeff: That’s a great perspective for someone to keep in mind whether they want to write a book or just journal their feelings.
On page 45 you wrote,”We had no knowledge of this future when we learned of your diagnosis…” This is in reference to not knowing Brett would have to relearn how walk and other side effects. Could Brett, and you, have been better prepared for possible side effects by the doctors? And would that have affected the treatment choices or recovery in any way?
Nancy: I’m not sure. No one case is the same. Besides, telling a family about possible side effects and living them are altogether different. It’s akin to waiting for someone to die. You think that you know what to expect but nothing really prepares you for the finality of death.
Jeff: Good point. But I do see cautionary value here for people to really take in all the possibilities their health team spells out to them.
When things are going bad talk about the important role having hopefulness in your life outside of illness played. Such as planning to have children… And what it meant to you and Brett.
Nancy: “The only proof of cure is life.” This is the first line of the book and one that held profound meaning for me. The thing is: life happens all around you. Life does not stop just because your husband has cancer. You have to find ways to affirm that, and for Brett and me, that was the decision to have children in the wake of his cancer.
Jeff: Wonderful. On page 73 you write:”I put myself in new situations to tip the scales in my favor”. Why was this important to your healing process?
Nancy: You can’t wait for life to happen. You have to make life happen.
Jeff: How did your Uncle Harvey (also a doctor) influence Brett’s care? What treatment did Brett receive that he might not have otherwise, and did it make any sort of difference?
Nancy: Such terrible irony that Harvey is a pediatric oncologist since Brett’s tumor, a medulloblastoma, typically affects children ages five and under.
How lucky we were to have him at the forefront of Brett’s care. He was the first person we called upon receiving Brett’s diagnosis, and we didn’t make a move without him the entire duration of Brett’s illness.
Harvey was a sounding board –- an unbelievably good and patient listener. He made phone calls. He came to important meetings. He did the research. And never once did he try to paint an unrealistic picture; he wanted Brett to live as much as any of us.
Jeff: Once you and Brett were told his odds were 5% did you consider any alternative or complimentary forms of treatment?
Nancy: No. Dr. Jonathan Finlay, who was then at the Hassenfeld Clinic at New York University, outlined a treatment plan combining drugs he thought might keep the cancer at bay even though the odds were against us.
Brett did in fact go into remission thereafter, but not long. I believe that Dr. Finlay helped to prolong Brett’s life.
Jeff: How important was play therapy in your twin children’s processing of what was going on? Was this something you initiated or had to be convinced was the right way to include or explain things to them?
The play therapy came through a child psychiatrist who specialized in working with grieving children, and later, through a brilliant social worker who drew simple line drawings:
- here is Daddy getting his medicine (chemo);
- here is Daddy resting in bed because he’s very tired.
Eventually, she would draw: “When someone dies their body stops working. They don’t eat or walk or talk anymore.”
I learned that you must be very concrete with young children.
Jeff: Did a doctor explain how Brett could have clean MRI scan after clean MRI scan, and then have the scan that has everybody saying there is nothing we can do… Brett’s options have run out…(P137 and 145) Is it just a limitation of western medicine? Or could something else screening or preventative wise been done?
Nancy: This is a very interesting question to ponder. While no one ever said, “he is cured,” naturally we clung to such hope. Which meant that any setback, unclear as it was – leftover radiation schmutz or new signs of cancer? – set us on a roller-coaster ride.
The very hardest stretch for me were the six months prior to Brett’s big seizure in November 2003. I sensed that Brett was changing before my eyes. He was very forgetful, confused, and absent-minded even though his MRI scans remained clean. This was when Dr. Stuart Fleishman, MD, at Beth Israel Cancer Center in New York, told me that the Brett I knew before cancer would never be back.
He was trying to convey how a person’s functional capacity diminishes even though their cancer is in remission.
Jeff: Between family, friends, social workers, doctors, Rabbi’s and support groups, it seemed like you both had a great support network. How important was it for Brett, you and your children to have that verses going it alone? How hard or easy was it to access support groups and social workers?
Nancy: No one should have to go through a cancer diagnosis alone. Brett’s cancer pre-dated the rise of the internet. Today, there is MyLifeline.org, which offers free resources and websites for cancer patients and their families.
Nancy: I went to CancerCare.org. They offer social service support. There are many national and local cancer resources available today that can be easily accessed via the Internet and the social workers at local hospital settings.
Jeff: On page 227 you said, “Taking care of little things gives a sense of order”…”disorder in your home, disorder in your soul.” “This is no myth”. How did this work or play out for you in terms of any disorder you may have felt, and little things you did to help you feel a sense of order?
Nancy: Living with the reality of my husband’s cancer made me feel that my life was out of control. Ordering my home in very small, tactical ways allowed me to regain some measure of control.
Jeff: That has worked for me as well.
It is natural for people to subconsciously carry unresolved issues from one relationship into the next… When dating Steve he called you on what your therapist would later phrase as you feeling as if “separation isn’t survivable… but you will learn that with Steve that it is”. How long did it take for you to learn this and for it to sink in on an emotional level?
Nancy: The whole process of mourning is so layered. I can’t really answer “how long.” Years! Seeing takes time. Healing takes time. These are my words from the book and they couldn’t more applicable here. Ultimately, I had to find ways to bring my past with me, to make it a part of my present relationship with Steve, just not the whole part. The same was true for him.
Jeff: And those are wise words, but I think you left out one very important detail in your book that I’m hoping you’ll answer here… When you took Brett to Philadelphia, what kind of cheesesteak sandwiches did you guys get??
Nancy: Just cheesesteaks! Plain and simple without all the adornments.
Jeff: Works for me! Nancy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your story with the world. Health and happiness to you and your family.
Nancy: Thank you so much for the privilege of sharing my experience. To life!
And for those interested, the book offers 10 questions for individuals or book discussion groups to consider and talk about. Nancy makes herself available to participate and discuss the work. You may contact Nancy at NSharp@nancysharp.net