Not Lightening Up

Today is normally the day I write a post in my Lighten Up series–everyday ideas about how to reduce the carbon footprint of our lives. But I’m not feeling light right now. 

Richard and I just returned from one of our all-too-frequent trips over the mountains to Denver to the VA Medical Center for his brain cancer care. (That’s the cloud-dappled sky over high-country South Park with “our” mountains in the distance in the photo below.) This trip included a routine brain MRI–“routine” because he’s had 8 of them by my count in the last ten months–to check up on how well the chemo drugs are working, and his regular Oncology appointment.


When his oncologist, Dr. Klein, came out to the main waiting room to fetch us, she wasn’t smiling the way she usually does. (I think Richard is one of her all-time favorite patients.) I figured her mood was just grumpiness from doing her best to ignore her recent birthday. Wrong. She had looked at his brain MRI, had seen a spot deep in the lower edge of his right frontal lobe that wasn’t there in the April scans, and had conferred with Radiology.

“It could be necrosis–cell death–from the radiation,” she said, showing us the MRI images on the computer screen, where the roundish white form was clearly visible inside and below the scar from his surgery and radiation. But, she continued, it appeared so suddenly and it’s wasn’t small. Her conclusion: it should be looked at–quickly. She had already called Neurosurgery to get Richard an appointment, and was waiting to hear back. And she had a call in to Dr. Chen, the radiation oncologist who treated Richard last winter. 

Oh. My.

She asked if we had any questions. Richard asked about his Temodar–he was supposed to start his sixth cycle of the chemo drug last week, but his platelet levels were on the low side. “Quit taking it,” she said. “If it’s not going to work, there’s no point giving you the poison.” She explained that she didn’t it to interfere with other treatments. Double Oh My.

“But what can I do to help you two?” she said, looking from him to me and back again. We couldn’t think right then, so she sent us off to get the breakfast we hadn’t had, since he had to fast for his pre-appointment blood tests. “But don’t leave town,” she said. “If neurosurgery can get you in today, I want them to see you.” She hugged each of us before we left.

So instead of driving home after our belated breakfast, we came back to the VA Medical Center and went upstairs to the 6th floor to neurosurgery, where we saw Dr. Brega, the neurosurgeon who took out Richard’s original tumor last October. She looked at the scans and concurred with Dr. Klein. “It could be necrosis, but it looks like a tumor,” she said. “It’s in a region of the brain where I don’t normally work, so I want to hand you off to one of the other neurosurgeons on the staff who has more experience there.” She made some calls and came back saying that she had the perfect person, had sent him the scans, and would talk to him as soon as possible to see what he thought. Richard asked how quickly the surgery might happen. “I talked to his secretary and his surgery calendar is full next week,” Dr. Brega said, “but it could be as early as the week after that.”

Triple Oh. My.

I hadn’t imagined that my love would need brain surgery again, much less so soon. But here we are. If that’s a tumor deep in his right temporal lobe, if it’s operable, and if it’s cancer, he’s up for having it taken out. Then so am I.

After Dr. Brega answered our questions and promised that we’d hear more soon, we headed for a familiar stop–the 6th Avenue Parkway, where we went for a walk two years ago to talk over the news of a carcinoma in his bladder. (That was successfully removed in 2008 and hasn’t returned. It’s not apparently related at all to the brain cancer.) This morning, we parked and walked hand-in-hand under the big shade trees for a bit, letting the news settle in. Then we headed across Denver and up into the mountains on our long drive home, still holding hands.

On the way across South Park, we always watch for wildlife in those miles of open, high-elevation grasslands. Sometimes we see elk, sometimes a coyote, sometimes pronghorn, always ravens and magpies, bluebirds in summer, occasionally white pelicans or long-billed curlews in migration. Today our best sighting was a small herd of pronghorn not far from the highway, with a surprise: three fawns a month or six weeks old. I spotted them on the slope below the middle of three mountain passes we cross, Red Hill Pass, and they were close enough to the road that Richard whipped a U-turn and went back to a place we could observe them without disturbing the group.

The photo above–shot from about 150 yards away–shows two of the does in the group, with one fawn between them and two off to the right. The does are looking toward a big pronghorn buck close to the highway who was herding two other does in the direction of this little group. 

Richard and I watched the pronghorn for a while, he through the binoculars and me through the camera lens, and then drove on toward home, hand in hand, our hearts lighter for the gift of seeing those three new lives.

As I’ve said before, this brain cancer journey is not one Richard or I ever imaged we’d walk. But walk it we are doing. And we’re determined to take whatever comes with love for each other, and appreciation for the days we have, tumors, pronghorn and all.

Thank you for walking it with us, and for your support. It means more than I can say.