The author walks with her husband, Kai, shortly before his death. (Photo: Courtesy of Hélène Kiser)
An hour after my husband Kai was diagnosed with lung cancer, we went out to walk the dog. The walls in our kitchen seemed far too narrow ― looking thick and hard to breathe.
At first we said nothing. We just shook hands like we were clinging on to life. Around the corner, Kai stumbled a little, clutching at our neighbour’s stone retaining wall. He looked at the November sky, the almost bare trees, the dog.
Then he looked at me.
“Will I get to 60?” He asked.
The cogs in my mind were spinning and clicking. I counted in my head, mentally tore pages from the calendar. December, January, February… June. In less than seven months. I reached out and grabbed his shoulders until he looked me in the eye.
“We’ll take you to 60.”
How logical, authoritative and certain I looked. Strong. In charge.
After months of antibiotics for a sinus infection that Kai didn’t have, weeks of headaches and more cough and mild fever, a referral to an ENT specialist and irrelevant treatments prescribed, the doctor sent for a final x-ray. They found the mass in his lung.
At the time of its discovery, the tumor already measured 14 centimeters. And he had metastasized. Kai was a stage IV dead man who walked.
Unlike cancers such as prostate and breast cancer, for which survival rates have increased steadily over the past half-century due to simple factors such as awareness and routine screenings, survival rates for lung cancer are low. Diagnosis almost always comes too late to do anything other than start therapies like chemo and radiation – things that treat but can’t cure.
Kai was, for a 59-year-old man, incredibly healthy. He ate all the right things (I know because I was the cook in the family), exercised daily, saw doctors regularly. A former football cornerback, he had no known risk factors or warning signs. In fact, he had undergone a full battery of physicals, x-rays and blood tests in preparation for elective knee replacement surgery just a year earlier.
But the cancer found him anyway. The tumor grew from nothing to huge, growing an average of 1.16 centimeters per month.
“How long?” we asked the doctor.
We were determined not to use the Internet for medical information. We promised each other.
I mostly kept the promise. Sometimes I couldn’t help it. I would give in, Google a quick response only to catch a sentence, gasp my breath, jerk off, shut down the offending webpage that said “two-year survival rate is about ten percent; five years about zero.
“The average is 18 months,” Kai’s doctor told us. He quickly followed up with, “But that takes into account all the patients, most of whom are much older and sicker, much less healthy than you, with multiple risk factors. We have every reason to believe that you will far exceed the average.
He added: “Let’s focus on what kind of life you want to live, what you want to do with your time.
The tumor grew from nothing to huge, growing an average of 1.16 centimeters per month.
September 12, 60e anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s ‘Moonshot’ speech to the nation, President Joe Biden announced plans for “another moonshot: ending cancer as we know it”.
Like most of us, Biden is no stranger to the helpless pain of watching a loved one suffer from the disease. Her son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 46. The fact of the disease is bad enough, but the complete inability to do anything is an unparalleled feeling of helplessness and loneliness.
The President launched the Cancer Cabinet in February 2022, and in July its priorities were, among other goals, to improve cancer screening, reduce the impact of cancer and support both patients and caregivers. . Specifically, Biden’s moonshot prioritizes biotech research and creates a new government agency dedicated to “biomedical innovation that supports the health of all Americans.”
There are over 100 major types of cancer.
Lung cancer comes in two flavors. Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for about 90% of all lung cancers and itself comes in three types.
Kai, with his squamous cell carcinoma, was one of more than 2 million people worldwide – roughly the population of Chicago, home to his beloved Cubs – served this diagnosis in 2017 alone, and in the advanced stages illness, it was too late to send him back to the kitchen: “No, thank you. That’s not what I ordered.”
The two treatment options for him were also repulsive and ordered together: chemicals from chemotherapy in the blood and X-rays from radiation to a localized area.
Neither therapy distinguishes between healthy and cancerous cells; each kills both.
But the doctor told us that because of Kai’s general state of health, he was a candidate for a cutting-edge treatment: immunotherapy. In 2017, it had shown great promise in clinical trials. A sort of moonshot, but on an individual scale.
Designed to attack invaders while protecting citizens’ cells, the human immune system is learning a new language through this treatment. Instead of directly targeting the cancer, immunotherapy overhauls the body’s communication network to activate all of the defenses against the destruction of once-normal cancer cells.
It wouldn’t cure him – a cure was not possible – but immunotherapy could lead to long-lasting remission and increased survival time.
The outlay, the doctor told us, was about $500, a miniscule price to pay for something that could give more time.
“Yes, yes”, we said, “absolutely yes.”
How much life is enough, when we can’t have forever? I guess the answer is, as any toddler would tell you, more.
Isn’t that what we all want, both for ourselves and for the people we love? More time? Such a human desire to continue to live at all costs. Sparing no expense and no treatment, prolonging the inevitable for all of us.
The doctor ordered a battery of genetic tests for the markers to determine relevance.
The bill we received later turned out to be closer to 100 times the cost quoted to us. And it made no difference. Kai’s profile didn’t match. And despite the prognosis – still enough time to live – he died just five months after his diagnosis. Five weeks before his 60th birthday.
He was supposed to have made it longer. I said it. The doctor said so. Even the internet said so. But how much life is enough, when you can’t have forever?
I guess the answer is, as any toddler would tell you, more. Whatever we get, we want more. That goal is still the moonshot, no matter how ambitious and unlikely to succeed. We feel that we must try, until the last possible crossing of the Ave Maria. Giving up is the only real failure.
And we tried, with everything modern medicine could offer. Kai’s medical team has taken a hit with their weekly chemo and daily radiation, more treatment than most cancer patients can handle. Kai was so strong he didn’t even look sick, never stopped eating, and never lost his hair. Until the very end, Kai was recognizable himself: handsome, strong, loving, and wickedly funny.
Five years later, I still have so much to learn about who I am as a widow ― not as a wife. It’s too late for Kai, and for Beau, and for the other in 6 people on earth who have already died of cancer – each of them being a parent, sibling, child, partner, a friend. Everyone loved it.
But I hope with all my heart that Biden’s moonshot finds its mark. If some cancers can eventually be cured, and other cancers can join the ranks of “vaccines available” for diseases like COVID, chickenpox, and the flu, maybe we can break some of grief’s hold on us. , at least long enough to fully live the life we have. sought.
Helene Kiser is the author of “Topographie”. His work has appeared in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on a dissertation. You can find her on Twitter at @HeleneTheWriter.
Do you have a compelling personal story that you would like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
More from HuffPost Personal…