By Jim Pantelas
When I was 26 years old my father died as the result of lung cancer. His case was so advanced that he died 7 days after his actual diagnosis. Fast-forward several years later to my own diagnosis and so much had changed, but all too much seemed the same.
The day I was diagnosed with lung cancer my wife Cathy was 6 months pregnant. We had the PET and CAT scans, knew the size of the tumor and we were assured that we were dealing with an early stage cancer, and that I could have a very good outcome. I went into the operating room with a Stage 1B cancer only to come out of that room minus 75% of my right lung and staged at 3B with stage 4 lymph node involvement.
With the change in the understanding of how my cancer had spread came the need to re-think how aggressive we might want to be in my post-operative treatments. I was offered, and I accepted a trial treatment regimen that included daily radiation and weekly chemo treatments. Four weeks after my surgery those treatments began, and they continued over the next several months. But it wasn’t those treatments that filled our world.
In the weeks between my operation and my daughter’s birth all of the “deals” we made were that I be allowed to live long enough to see her born. And life remained fairly hectic. Cathy’s baby shower went off while I was confined to my recliner, and while I couldn’t climb the stairs or help, family members came over and finished the nursery, friends took care of the yard work, and neighbors dropped off food.
Three weeks after starting my post-operative therapies, and on a day in which small mountains were moved to allow me to have my chemo treatment early, my wife gave birth to our daughter Stella and she was so very beautiful!
An old adage says that your last death happens when your name is spoken for the last time. For me Stella’s birth in some weird way made my physical death more palatable. She was here, and she would be able to live on when I could not. So I wrote her notes – things I’d want her to get on birthdays, Valentines or Christmas, and I reached out to friends to welcome them to share stories with her if I could not.
At 21 days old Stella had a brain bleed. She was in the NICU at Mott Children’s Hospital for over 30 days. We spent my birthday, Christmas and New Years there. Every day I would leave Mott to go to my radiation or chemo treatments at the hospital across town, but a piece of me never left. And we stopped thinking about my cancer. All of our thoughts, hopes and prayers were for Stella.
Stella’s brain bleed caused what her neurologist called “a significant injury.” And my cancer went into an NED state. I found myself thankful for some of the gifts my lung cancer had given me. I was unable to work, so I could spend all day, every day with Stella. I hadn’t died the way my father had – my cancer had given me the time to get my affairs in order, and given Stella’s injury and subsequent disabilities getting those things done was and remains vital. And I was there with my wife so we could go through this together. None of that would have been possible if I’d died in a bus accident, in a fall in the bathtub, or if I’d been taken by a heart attack. And, most of all, I’d have never known the pure joy of being Stella’s dad.
So as we come up on Father’s Day I think of my dad, but mostly I think about the gift of being able to be a dad. Stella is now 9 years old, and she has two glorious, bright, and very funny younger sisters, Grace, 7 and Leda 5, and I’m grateful for every extra day I’ve been given to be their dad, Cathy’s husband and, I hope, a better man.