Excerpt from Better By The Dozen Plus Two, Part Two: Lessons Learned through Loss and Leukemia by a Family of Sixteen
By Kathleen Littleton
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A Whole New World
Jim had a cough that wouldn’t go away. It was flu season, mid-October, and our area had been hit with an epidemic of swine flu. Although he kept resisting, finally he agreed to go see a doctor after weeks of the cough, night sweats and times when he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. A friend gave him a referral, and he went for a physical for the first time since he was eighteen. He didn’t want to go to our local clinic, but wanted to see a doctor who was affiliated with a Catholic hospital in the event he needed to be hospitalized, a possible premonition.
The doctor was very thorough and ran many tests, including a CT scan and blood tests over a two-day period, Thursday and Friday. That Monday, she called Jim in to tell him that she was referring him to a specialist due to very high white blood cell counts. She indicated it might be mono, but she also mentioned and was the first to use the word leukemia as a possibility. The date was Monday, October 19, 2009.
That night, Jim and I researched leukemia on the internet. We knew then with certainty in our hearts that this was to be the diagnosis. Jim had all the symptoms and now we knew why. For years, even in his early forties, Jim would need to rest during the day, his energy levels spent. I couldn’t understand it as I was the one who was up most nights with newborns and taking care of sick children over the years and I rarely took a nap. He seemed very healthy overall, had a black belt in karate, ran two marathons, exercised daily, managed his own business, served in ministry for the Catholic church, was constantly giving of himself for his family and others, so we just attributed his tiredness to stress, overwork and maybe staying too busy for his own good. But now we knew the real answer.
I went with Jim to the consult with the specialist the next day. As we parked in front of the address that the doctor gave us, we realized that the building was the cancer unit of the hospital. To see the words emblazoned above the door made what we were facing even more frightening as it started to all became very real. We were lead to a small examining room and were asked many questions by the cancer specialist. He had four or five doctors-in-training in the room with us so it was rather overwhelming. I began to realize that Jim’s must be a very special case that these young future doctors had not yet been exposed to as they were all taking copious notes and trying not to look me in the eye. Eventually, the specialist revealed the official diagnosis, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.
As we left his office, we were in a state of numb shock. It was too soon to even formulate any questions or come up with next steps. We needed a couple of days to just absorb this news – just the two of us. As we arrived home, we tried to pretend that everything was normal on the outside. I recall I went to coach Maura and Clare’s speech club at their grade school, and even though I was bodily present, my mind was just not there. When alone together that night, we had time to start letting the reality hit us and we were afraid, but still trusting that somehow even this would turn out alright. We clung to our faith and each other, this time even more desperately.
The day after the official diagnosis, Jim went downtown to St. Peter’s Church in Chicago and did a three hour general confession.[i] The next day he went in for more tests and an MRI. That weekend, we told the children from Shane on up, my siblings, and Jim’s parents. It was very hard to make those calls, to hear our college-aged children’s happy voices on the other line, then to break the news to them. We had to repeat the news fourteen times to our immediate family – Jim’s parents, our siblings and our older children – over that weekend, and it didn’t get any easier.
So began our entry into a whole new world – a new world of cancer.
[i] From Wikipedia: A General Confession, as understood by St. Ignatius of Loyola is a form of Confession whereby one spends three to ten days preparing for a confession of all one’s sins in one’s life up to that point in time. The main goal of the “general confession” is to turn one’s life from one of sin to a more devout one(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Confession).