When Cancer Came Knocking

June 24, 2009

17 min read


Everyone dies, some sooner than later. It's how we choose to live our lives that matters.

Cancer came knocking. We didn't want it to but it barged in, uninvited, unwelcome.

My husband, Danni, and I were in our mid-30s with two young children and we suddenly had to deal with words and concepts that had no place in our young lives. Death and sickness had always been vague, far off concepts that happened to other people.

When the oncologist told us that the cancer had already spread from the left lung to the other side of Danni's chest, and that he had a 4 percent chance of survival, we began to live a new reality. Living with fear and uncertainty, yet not allowing it to overtake us and destroy our lives. Not allowing this unexpected disease to rob us of our joy for life, our hopes and plans for the future.

Living with fear and the unknown, yet not wanting these feelings accessed by anyone, not even our closest family and friends. We felt that we had to put on a front, to show that we were strong. How could we admit that we ourselves were frightened? So in keeping up a brave and positive face, we learned to ignore negative thoughts and not allow them to control our lives. We remained happy and positive people, and our strength helped these beloved people to cope as well.

We are 100% going to be in that 4% survival category.

Danni started chemotherapy, and I started researching alternative treatments. Our life's motto became: We are 100% going to be in that 4% survival category. There was no way that this disease was going to get us!

Unbelievably, we actually learned to enjoy our new reality; there were so many good things coming out of it. Danni and I were spending so much more time together and our marriage got stronger. In facing death our relationship became deeper and more meaningful.

Danni is the type who is always doing something. Instead of lying on the couch and feeling sorry for himself, he would do as much as he could without over-exerting himself. The company I worked for was very understanding and allowed me to take off whatever time I needed, but I still had to work. Often when I got home the laundry would all be done, the house all tidy.

Danni never saw himself as an invalid. He just got on with life, kept busy and looked so well people couldn't believe he had life threatening cancer. With such a great attitude and amazing inner strength, it was easy to focus together on getting well.

Danni's illness opened up a huge outpouring of chesed, selfless giving. We were inundated with calls, emails, offers to help, money, you name it, from both friends and strangers. The fact that I did not have to prepare supper or Shabbat meals for a very long time took a huge burden off of me, and knowing that people were praying for Danni was a tremendous comfort.

At first we didn't want to accept any help. I felt we didn''t need it. We were coping fine and I could not bear the thought of becoming objects of pity. A wise friend told me: "You have to let people help you. God has given you an opportunity to bring chesed into the world." I realized that people needed to express their pain and concern for us into something concrete. Our acceptance of their chesed would help them feel better, and of course, it would also help us too!

Before Danni got sick, we had purchased a new home, budgeting down to the last cent. After we signed the contract there were big changes in the dollar/shekel exchange and we ended up losing a lot of money. Our financial worries were enormous, but after cancer came knocking, money became the absolute lowest priority.

The extravagance of eating expensive ice cream became a daily ritual: Since chemotherapy recipients often lose extensive weight, Danni's cancer nutrition specialist told him to indulge in the ice cream with the most calories every day. As a supportive wife, I certainly could not let him eat on his own! Danni managed to keep his weight steady, and as for myself, no comment!

In the Eye of the Storm

When Danni first got sick we didn't publicize it, feeling that it was something private to be shared only with the closest family and friends. However, after discovering that the cancer was so advanced and that the chances of survival were so small, we decided to go public and get as many prayers as we could. Everywhere I went I felt eyes on me; sympathetic, aching, heart-sore eyes. It was very hard. I appreciated their concern, but I couldn't bear their pity. What I really needed was to have a good laugh, to forget even for a short time what was happening in my home. I needed to forget my husband, once virile and full of life, now lying pale and wan on the couch (albeit with a smile on his face). I needed to forget my four year old daughter's nightmares, my eight year olds questions on life and death. Of course I realized that people just cared about us, and essentially it was very much appreciated.

l felt myself as the pillar of the family, holding everything together. I knew that if I collapsed, I would bring everyone down with me. I had to keep strong, positive and upbeat.

I certainly didn't like it, but I knew that the Almighty was testing me and giving me the opportunity to develop my strengths.

I knew inherently that this was God's plan for me; that this was the best thing that could happen to me. I couldn't understand why, I certainly didn't like it, but I knew that the Almighty was testing me, giving me the opportunity to develop my strengths and become a better person through my experience. Every now and then when things got too much I would close my eyes and say "God please help me, I can't anymore," and I would hear a voice saying "You can. I am with you," and I would be strengthened and could carry on.

Spinning in a whirlwind, it took all our effort to stay centered in the eye of the storm. We did manage to find a sense of equilibrium and tranquility by working hard to focus on the good that God had blessed us with, and not thinking or ruminating on the negative. Thankfully there were so many things to be grateful for, so many blessings in our lives.

Metastatic cancer is a life changing experience. No one can live with serious illness and stay the same. You become defined by how you deal with your illness; are you swallowed up in self pity, or have you turned into a conqueror? That first year changed us tremendously and I think it is fair to say we, as a family, were in the category of conquerors.

Dragged to Hell

After a year of various chemotherapy treatments and radiation, incredibly we got the all clear from the doctor. It was nothing short of miraculous. I felt that now we could handle anything.

Our joy that the tumor had vanished was doused by the fact that Danni would have to undergo major surgery, cutting out the lobe of left lung where the cancer had been. A lobectomy is known to be a terribly painful operation but we were ecstatic that Danni was alive to undergo it. Our surgeon (an angel in the guise of an American-trained Christian Arab) had told us that almost no one with Danni's medical history has this operation ― they either have too many medical complications or die before they can be operated on.

And then I was dragged into the dark hole of hell. God had plans that twisted and squeezed every bit of sparkle out of me. What is hell? Hell is seeing your beloved husband wracked in horrific pain. Hell is knowing that you need to be with your husband in hospital because he can't function alone, yet your children need you too. They are sure their father is going to die, and you want to be with them to hold and reassure them. Hell is being the recipient of your husband's frustration, anger and pain, yet not being able to retaliate because you know he is in a terrible place and is lashing out in desperation, not in nastiness. Hell is seeing your children's anguish and desperation when they hug you after a quick visit, before you return to the hospital.

Danni has a huge scar from the side of his chest, going round to the back. They opened his entire chest cavity from the side, slashing all the sensitive nerve endings, hacking muscles and breaking ribs in order to access the lung. The surgeon told us that the operation was very difficult. Usually he operates on much older people and their bodies melt like butter when he cuts in. Danni's body being young and strong objected to the onslaught and he paid the price in terrible, ongoing pain for months afterwards. Painkillers only took the edge off, doctors couldn't help, and nothing alternative seemed to work.

My nice husband disappeared and an irritable and aggressive man moved in.

Massive doses of drugs altered Danni's personality. My nice husband disappeared and an irritable and aggressive man moved in. This man took out his frustration mainly on me, but also on the children. He was numb, barely aware of what he was doing. I found myself trying to be a supportive wife, yet also defending the kids against their father. They didn't deserve to be shouted at for the tiniest thing, yet Danni didn't have the strength to control himself ― he was so weak and sick. I had to explain to my children that their father was not himself, that he was unwell.

It was also extremely difficult for my in-laws to see their son like this. They were very needy and I had to strengthen them too. On top of all this, I had a job. I was torn in many different directions.

At the time my youngest daughter was five years old. Her screams at night from her ongoing nightmares were draining. She was convinced her father was going to die, but couldn't tell me, not wanting to burden me more. I saw her angst and took her to a psychologist where things came into the open. We explained that he was not going to die, that the operation would make him better. Intellectually she understood but couldn't comprehend why he was behaving so roughly. Nor could her older sister. For that matter, nor could I. I turned to the surgeon, our oncologist, our family doctor, desperate for help. They all said the same thing: the painkillers were chemically affecting Danni's brain, causing personality changes. They assured me that these were temporary and would cease when he stopped the drugs.

This was one of the worst periods of my life. I was walking though a poisonous fog where every gulp of air was painful, but I had to breathe to stay alive. I spent a lot of time mulling over the concept of suffering. We don't ask for suffering. We obviously don't want to suffer. But things happen to us, unpleasant, unwanted. While we can't choose our suffering, we certainly can choose how to accept God's plans for us. We have the free will to collapse and cry all day, or alternatively to say ― this is God's will, and I know and accept with a whole heart that all that God chooses for us is what we need to go through. We have the free will to hold our heads up high, and smile and laugh (and even cry), but know that we can and will be strong no matter what happens.

Throughout this period the Almighty was a constant presence I turned to. There were times when I felt that I could barely get out of bed, and although I went through the motions for the sake of my family, in my minds eye I was curled up, fetus-like, hurting and unhappy. At those times I would gather my strength and invoke the blessing "Blessed are You, Lord Our God, Who raises up those who are bowed down" and I'd imagine God's finger gently uncurling me, raising me up, helping me to lift up my head and be strong, and I then could carry on normally.

Repeat Visitor

Very slowly, things began to improve. Danni started coming back to himself, and the loving husband and father that we missed so much returned to us. After hell came healing, and the whole family managed to shift back to normality. Life was wonderful again. We had beaten cancer; it was over! While we were certainly aware that the tumor could come back and never stopped praying, we just did not think about it.

About one year later, a new malignant tumor was discovered in Danni's lower left lung. We were distressed, but grateful it had not spread. Danni was immediately scheduled for a complete pneunomectomy (removal of the entire lung).

So we were plunged into hell all over again, this time even worse than before. Because Danni's body had been through so much trauma, it fought against the surgery and there were complications. Danni was in hospital over three weeks, sicker and weaker than ever before. I won't go into all the details ― suffice it to say that God works wonders in helping us to forget difficult situations, and I thank Him for giving me the strength to be able to get through that period, leave it behind me, and move on.

Danni got well again and hell faded away. We picked up the pieces and life was enjoyable again. We thought we'd closed the chapter. There was no more left lung. Good bye cancer! And so, you can imagine what a big shock we got when another malignant tumor was discovered in Danni's right lung only seven months later. We somehow never expected the cancer to come back on the other side. On the outside I was calm, but in my mind a mantra was resonating: "My husband is going to die, my husband is going to die," and yet another voice was shouting, just as loud "No! No! No!" It took a lot of work not to give in to negativity this time. We were still so frail but we hadn't come this far just to give up. So our family went into battle mode again, determined to win.

This time there was one major difference. After trying for five years, I was pregnant.

But this time there was one major difference. While running to doctors and second opinions, trying to decide the best course of treatment, life was stirring inside me. I was pregnant.

I was so thankful. Thankful that that the cancer was contained in this one tumor and hadn't spread throughout Danni's body. Thankful to live in a developed country with advanced medicine including many types of chemotherapy that could help Danni to prolong his life. Thankful for a wonderful doctor who really cared about us. Thankful for supportive family and friends. Thankful for IVF. Thankful for so many blessings that I felt all around me, but mostly thankful that after five years of trying, I was finally pregnant. We had chosen to live, and this baby was a confirmation of that fact.

With surgery deemed too dangerous, conventional drug therapy was the best option for Danni. Chemo was, relatively speaking, a breeze. Once again we were a team marching forward towards the enemy, strong and courageous, determined to triumph.

I'd walk into the oncological day room with my big pregnant belly in front of me, feeling the eyes of every single person in that room following me, some of them smiling in approval, others with a look that we were downright crazy. To these people I gave my warmest smile. It saddened me to think they were so sunk in negativity that they could not even smile at a pregnant stomach.

Our precious son Brachya (which means a blessing from God or God blessed us) entered this world exactly one year after Danni's second surgery, on February 28, 2007. The baby brought so much happiness and light into our family. When he wasn't feeling well after his treatments, Danni would lie on the couch holding our little blessing with such joy. His older sisters just adored him, and having a new baby brother took their minds off Danni's illness. He made us all forget our suffering and indeed, to this day, Brachya is illuminating our home with his delightful sunny personality.

The next CT performed a few months later showed a huge reduction in the tumor and Danni was deemed "healthy". Once more we began the process of rebuilding, picking up the fragments of our lives, and trying to move forward into normality.

Our respite ended rather abruptly half a year later with the oncologist's announcement that the tumor was back. Once again we were thrown into the "now what do we do" arena. Doctors, specialists, second opinions, and reassuring our girls that "it's going to be okay" occupied all our time. In the end it was decided to proceed with a special type of 3-D radiation only available overseas. We packed up and went to Munich, Germany, all expenses paid by our medical aid. My sister who lives in Berlin drove down with her family to meet us, and notwithstanding Danni's treatment, we managed to have a wonderful holiday in the Alps, and thereafter in the States, where we went for Danni's recuperation.

Choosing to Live

In the last CT before this article was written something suspicious was found again. Although everyone who heard the news was totally distraught, Danni and I were not; probably because we have reached the stage of just accepting whatever happens and not getting upset by it. Danni did a biopsy, and thank God it wasn't anything to worry about.

We can choose to give in to depression, or we can say, this is my life and I'm going to live it as best as I can.

Although Danni is "clean" now, we don't really think it's over (we'd like to think so!). Cancer is part of our lives, and the brutal truth is that we are just playing for time.

I once asked our oncologist if it wasn't depressing to work with sick and dying people all the time. His answer blew me away. "Everyone is going to die," he said, leaning forward over his desk, "some sooner than later. It's how we choose to live our lives that matters. My job brings me into the company of wonderful people who, despite illness and suffering, have chosen to live. I can't think of any job more rewarding than that."

It really is all about how we choose to live. So many times over the past few years people have told me that they are amazed at how positive we are. And I tell them, "It's just a matter of attitude. We can choose to sit, cry and give in to depression, or we can say, Okay, this is my life, and I'm going to live it as best as I can!"

So we are carrying on with our life, pushing cancer to the back of our minds and hoping that it doesn't come knocking again. Hoping that it doesn''t ruin our plan to sit together on the porch in our rocking chairs, watching our grandchildren play. And if it does come back, then we'll keep fighting because with the help of God, nothing is going to destroy our hope to have a wonderful future together.

With great sorrow we regret to inform you that Danni Gaziel passed away on Oct. 3, 2010, Tishrei 25, 5771. May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

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