My dad died over a month ago in his home, as we knew he eventually would ever since he was diagnosed with stage 4 endocrine cancer over 5 years ago. I was there with him during his final week of life, along with the rest of his family, and I watched him pass when it was time.
I have been having a really hard time dealing with the grief. Not just over the loss of my dad, but I’ve also been freshly hit with a wave of grief over the loss of my brother Zac, who also died of cancer over 3 years ago. I watched them both pass, and I thought I would be prepared for my dad’s passing based on my experience with Zac, but it turns out each event was different for me. With over a decade of my life being cast in the shadow of the eventual fates of terminally ill family members, it’s a big mental shift to suddenly not have to worry about those things any longer. Now there are only the feelings that remain, not the worry, because the inevitable has already happened. But there’s the sadness, the anger, the irrevocable loss.
Zac was first diagnosed at 26 years old with stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma. Through years of chemo and radiation therapies, he eventually also developed leukemia on top of it. Ironically, it was the malpractice of my brother’s health care professionals that ultimately did him in, not the cancers.
Zac went into the hospital on Thanksgiving 2014 with a fungal infection in his lungs. (When you are a cancer patient, your treatments deplete your immune system and make you susceptible to contracting infections like these). On a chest scan, the doctors noticed a lump near Zac's lungs that they wanted to biopsy while he was in the hospital. The lump was really nothing new; we had dealt with these kind of findings for years, and it was not something that really needed to be handled right then, it could wait.
Zac told the doctors and nurses that he didn’t want to do a biopsy at that point, he just wanted to get the infection under control and get out of the hospital. They could worry about a biopsy when he was more stable. But the doctors and nurses insisted, and unfortunately you don’t always have the strength to advocate for yourself in these situations.
The motherfuckers ended up nicking an artery during their “routine procedure” and it led to Zac bleeding out into his lungs. He ended up in the ICU and was put on respiratory support. His lungs were never able to recover, and Zac died a few weeks later on his 34th birthday, just beating out Jesus for longevity. The biopsy was negative, by the way. Zac’s lymphoma had been in remission due to my sister’s stem cell transplant to him a year prior, and the leukemia could have been managed (it’s a fairly treatable cancer, just aggressive). If only they hadn’t fucked up his lungs, he could still be alive today. I am still very angry about what they did to him. They did not see a human being when they looked at him, but only dollar signs. And their greed and carelessness caused my brother to die.
Three years later, as my dad lay upon his own death bed under hospice care in his home, I learned that his unlucky path was also made possible through the malpractice of a medical professional. My dad had had an x-ray a year before his eventual diagnosis that was flagged as suspicious, but his doctor just neglected to follow up on it. By the time my dad was diagnosed, it was too late to receive anything but a terminal prognosis because the cancer had metastasized to his liver.
My dad managed to live a couple years longer than average for a person with his diagnosis, but the years aged him and changed his life. At a time when he had just retired from his job and should have been able to focus on doing more of the things he loved, he slowly had to give them up instead. First, he had to give up playing tennis as his body started to decline physically. Next, my dad's fingers became so stiff and boney that he couldn’t really play the piano anymore, though he had been playing gigs around town as a jazz musician for years. Finally, he was no longer able to take long road trips through the beautiful countryside of the western U.S., a tradition that I think of fondly from my childhood driving through the national parks around southern Utah.
At the end of life, my dad's body was decimated and ravaged by disease, abdomen swollen many times its normal size because his liver was more tumor than liver. But everywhere else on his body was a thin sack of pallid skin and sharply angled bones. It was really hard to witness this physical decline, especially toward the end. At least my dad's mind remained sharp to the end.
So now that my sick family members are gone, I am left grieving and angry. How many more lives will be damaged by the carelessness of our unfeeling and profit-driven health care system? When will “do no harm” become something more than a hollow Hippocratic oath? (More like hypocritic oath.) Not as long as the medical and pharmaceutical industries continue to operate for profit.
Prior to the HMO Act of 1973, the health care industry was not legally able to operate for profit. That is as it should be, because the financial incentives are in the wrong place otherwise. But by golly when there’s a buck to be made, you can be damn well sure the policy makers of this country will favor the wealthy industry constituents who stand to make that buck. In this country we overwhelmingly allow our social policy to be driven by profit-seeking industry giants with the financial pull to influence the legislators who make our laws. This is government by the corporations, for the corporations, and you and me are decidedly not invited to the party.
So what is left for me? I do not trust the medical industry by any stretch. I’ve had my own experiences being treated like a number, a dollar sign, a case by medical professionals, and not as a human being, and I’ve seen it happen to too many others. It’s become very real for me that if I want to have a different outcome in life than my family has had, my best bet is to do the best I can for myself. I am trying to take better control over my health through becoming more active and making better choices with my nutrition. I am trying to learn about alternate medicine. There are thousands of years of medical wisdom that we willfully ignore in the West because there's no money to be made on the non-patentable.
One thing is certain to me: Should my fate also include cancer, I would not pursue traditional medical treatment for myself. I would sooner place my trust in the wisdom of the ages, in the earth, in the mind, in the body. And let come what may.