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Open Features: Coping With Cancer - 1

" I looked down at the skeletal face of a stranger, wisps of hair on a head practically bald, desperate eyes devoid of emotion. Was this the man I had married thirty-five years ago?''

Marianne Hall tells of confronting the situation we all dread.

"Take the blanket off me. It's too heavy!'"

I looked down at the skeletal face of a stranger, wisps of hair on a head practically bald, desperate eyes devoid of emotion. Was this the man I had married thirty-five years ago - strong and strapping? In ten months he had changed from a big hunk of a man, full of life and enthusiasm to a shadow of his former self?

It had happened so quickly. There was a numbness in the left leg. The doctor diagnosed it as nerve pressure. That night Bob experienced excruciating headaches. "Give him a Stopayne," was the advice given. The headaches became worse and the numbness spread. The next day he was rushed to hospital. X-rays confirmed that he had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage.

An immediate operation was scheduled. Outside the operating room I heard the noise of a drill. The cranium was being entered! The specialist walked over to me. "I have bad news for you," he said. "Your husband has brain cancer. I was not able to remove it all. I'm sorry, he has only about three months to live."

I left the hospital in a daze. Everything seemed so unreal. Somehow I got home. I walked from room to room, then opening this drawer, then closing that. After three days in the ICU he was transferred into the general ward. The left side was completely paralysed.

I put on a brave front but I was going to pieces inside. For the following two weeks a nurse and I accompanied him to the Hillbrow Hospital for chemotherapy. Cancer is so prevalent. It is no respector of age. There were small white-faced children, completely bald. Desperate old people - all waiting, just waiting.

Then one day, a miracle happened. I was met with a smile. "Guess what?" Bob said. "I moved my toe." I lifted the sheets and watched apprehensively. The big left toe twitched!

Could the specialist have been wrong? I became slightly hysterical. "In two weeks time I am going to walk out of here," said my husband.

It was then decided to start on a series of therapy. Various shaped blocks had to be fitted into their respective holes. I was engulfed by a feeling of intense empathy as I watched him struggling to find these holes. Here was a man who had taught matric pupils the intricacies of technical drawing and who now did not know the difference between a square and a triangle!
The cancer had wiped out all the logical processes in the brain.

Finally, Bob was discharged from hospital. It was obvious that he could not be left alone at home. I was working at the time and had three years to go to retirement. If I resigned I would lose all my retirement benefits. My principal suggested that I move my husband into a nursing home where he would get proper treatment especially if matters got worse.

I was in a dilemna and battled with the problem for days. Finally, I contacted Hospice. They assured me that if I decided to keep him at home they would give me their full support. I felt so inadequate. With no nursing experience, would I be able to cope? Very apprehensively, I decided to resign from my job and look after my sick husband. Once this decision was made I felt more in control of the situation. My husband also realised that I was there for him and this helped him to cope better.

Sister Gloria Knox from the East Rand Hospice arranged ro come on weekly visits. There was an instant rapport between Gloria and her patient and this augered well for the difficult months ahead. Gradually, life became more organised. The bed was placed in such a way that it could be reached from all sides. It was put at right angles to the passage which lead directly into the kitchen, so that Bob was in constant contact with the activities in the rest of the house. All unnecessary furniture and loose mats were removed. An extension cord was obtained for the telephone which was placed on a bedside table next to the radio. The TV with remote control was put opposite the bed.

My own bed was positioned so that I had full visual contact of him at all times. Both beds had bedside lamps but I found it easier to keep a torch handy for a quick nightly check.
Windows were kept open when the weather allowed. The garden was kind to me and there were always fresh flowers.


This moving account of coping with the crisis we all dread will be completed in Open Writing next Saturday.


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