Has your wife, Kathy, recovered from breast cancer?
We hope so. She had been cancer-free since the spring of 2006, but had a relapse this past year. Fortunately it was non-invasive and caught early, so the odds are she’ll be just fine.
I wrote an essay about our initial experience for CBS Sunday Morning in 2006.
The text is below, or you can watch the video here.
Taking Time Out
We all have our ways of marking time. As a National Geographic photographer, my life is measured one story to the next. I bought my first house in Nebraska while I was on assignment shooting the Gulf Coast. My son was born in the middle of a long story about the Endangered Species Act. My daughter came along with a pack of gray wolves.
Twenty stories later though, it’s the North Slope I’ll remember best. Alaska’s loss of wilderness and innocence—and the story during which my wife got cancer. The one that made time stand still.
We met in college, at a blues bar. She had long blonde hair and thought I was funny.
Beautiful, graceful, and patient, she has remained my muse for 22 years, despite the thousands of times I’ve forced her to be photographed.
She may have gotten tired of it now and then.
The picture taking pretty much stopped though on the day she found that tumor in her right breast. The size of a hen’s egg. Weirdly, it was Thanksgiving. By Christmas the chemo had her weak and bedridden. Some days she was so sick she couldn’t watch TV. One day she couldn’t even talk.
Early detection saves lives. But ours was not early. By the time you can feel it yourself, it’s bigger than the doctors want it to be. Our surprise baby had distracted her from two annual mammograms. Now I’d pay anything to go back in time.
The neighbors brought us food, including, for some reason, five-alarm chili. I’d give them updates at the door, sounding like a broken record. “Yes, Kathy’s very sick. Yes, she’s very tired. She’ll be on chemo most of the year, then surgery, then radiation.”
Cancer is a thief. It steals time. Our days are already short with worry. Then cancer comes, relentless and unfair as a hailstorm at harvest time. We brace for the worst.
Kathy went for chemo every week. The oncologist took blood, gave percentages, told us we were doing great. But he’s been treating cancer patients a long time. We know he just doesn’t know, isn’t sure, and in his eyes I see his worries. He carries our burden, too.
Now, forgive me for saying this, but cancer can also be a blessing. An amazing experience that forces us to make amends, to set things right, to concentrate on living. To pay attention.
Cancer made me a better father. My work had made me a stranger to my three kids. They got along just fine without me. I was so bad that I once tried to get Kathy’s midwife to induce labor to get me back out on the road the next day.
But now we’re both changed, for good.
I don’t check my email 50 times a day. We’ve both turned off our cell phones. We try instead to pay full attention to everything and everyone. On the best days, we all go fishing. There’s a nice farm pond about 10 miles away, full of bass and frogs. Turns out it’s been waiting for us all this time.
A new life and a new way of seeing, from one malicious lump.
On our drives home from the doctor, I’d often look around at stoplights. I see people talking on their phones, putting on makeup, eating. They’re all in a hurry. It all seems so important.
But is it?
In the end, each of us has so little time. We have less of it than we can possibly imagine. And even though it turns out that Kathy’s cancer has not spread, and her prognosis is good, we try to make it all count now, appreciating every part of every day.
Sometimes, we sit together on our porch at sunset. We don’t talk. We just hold hands. We listen to the crickets chirp, soft and cautious, as if they know that first frost might come tonight.
We stay awhile, until the last of the light is gone, until we can’t see anything. Until we’re just two hearts in the darkness. We’re in no hurry at all.