By Brent Schweisberger
The phone rang on a Friday afternoon. “Hi, Jen. What did they find out?”
“Dad, they told me I have cancer.”
Any parent’s response would be similar – I pulled over the car immediately, tried to make sense of what Jennifer was stammering through her tears, and in complete denial that lung cancer could strike a 30 year old never-smoker, faced this cruel disease head-on.
For three years now, our family has traveled on what Jennifer so aptly dubbed the “speeding cancer train.” We learned that when there is no knowledge, by definition all you have is fear. As knowledge slowly begins to build, fear begins to dissipate. As fear wanes, hope grows, and resolve becomes easier to justify. We know more about small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the lung than we ever wanted to learn.
It seemed so easy at first. After the diagnostic tests, I was excited for Jennifer on her first day of chemo. It was a watershed moment, when her cancer finally found an adversary. That day, the healing would begin, and we found a glimmer of hope. By the end of the first round of chemo, Jennifer reported a lessening of the pressure in her airways. Could it be working that quickly? Was cancer miraculously giving up after only one round? Optimism grew. Jennifer proclaimed she was going to kick cancer’s butt.
On a gray December day later that year, having endured four rounds of chemo and weeks of radiation, her radiologist called with the most recent scan result: the mass had completely resolved. It was over! As she drove past a church, a lone bagpiper was playing a simple but familiar tune which tumbled onto the street: it was Amazing Grace, indeed. As her tears flowed, Jennifer knew it was a sign from her beloved Grandmother who had passed a few years before. “It’s not your time yet, Jen.”
After some preventative treatments and scans, Jennifer cooked, gardened, worked, enjoyed her marriage, and embraced life. Soon, she even had hair again.
Fifteen months later, Jennifer and her husband presented us with fabulous news. We were finally going to be grandparents! We celebrated the coming arrival and planned all of the associated events. But we didn’t plan for more cancer.
Months later, a lump appeared in Jennifer’s lower back and biopsy confirmed the neuroendocrine cancer had returned. Scans showed it was also in her liver, and she was 22 weeks pregnant. Now we had two lives directly impacted, and treatment was challenging. After many consultations, chemo began anew, with a cohort of specialists monitoring every aspect.
By late in the pregnancy, the baby was no longer growing. Chemo had impaired the placenta, and the decision was made to bring the baby early. As I held our new grandson the first time, I recalled Jennifer’s arrival, our firstborn, and felt again the quiet way she forever altered my life that day. Now we needed to get her healthy once more.
Chemo restarted, and radiation was needed for her liver. For some time, things looked good. But then, the new bomb: “Dad, there’s no way to say this other than to just lay it out there. I have a new tumor and it’s in my brain.”
It wasn’t a very pleasant ride home from work that afternoon. I prepared to break the news to my wife. A long hug and some tears later, we talked to Jennifer and resolved anew to beat this. We knew the odds were longer, but Jen was still going to kick cancer’s butt. If she says she is, we aren’t about to quit on her.
It’s a long journey, but we walk hand in hand with Jennifer, her two sisters, and their families. Her battle is not yet won, but our family stands steadfastly together in unquestioned support of our brave young woman.