A couple months ago, a man named Colin Farmer reached out to me about his late wife, Katy…
Here’s what Colin said: It has now been one year since my wife Katy died at the age of 45. She bravely fought stage four colorectal cancer for two and half years. Like so many moms, Katy handled pretty much everything for our household and kids, even while working as a producer at 60 Minutes and undergoing cancer treatment. She managed all the shopping, school forms, doctor visits, playdates and after school activities for our two children, Riley and Will. In the weeks following her death, I began settling her accounts, all things tangible and logistic. In a fog of grief, I obsessively spent hours a day digging through her phone, computer, emails and texts, searching for forms, files and logins. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what she did on behalf of our family, I was determined to get my arms around all of it, even as I struggled with the loss of my beloved wife.
Looking back, I now realize I was looking for something rational and concrete to do, something I could control after helplessly watching Katy succumb to cancer. In her final days, I promised I would do everything I could to care for our kids the way she had. Unplugging her digital life and establishing order was among the only things that made sense. The early weeks after losing Katy were especially surreal. My mind was incapable of acknowledging that she was actually gone and I became wholly focused on taking control of whatever I could in her absence.
One of the last files I found on her laptop was simply titled “ONE YEAR.” It was deep in a drive I didn’t know she had. Katy had written it around the first anniversary of her diagnosis and never mentioned it to me. To find her essay was both comforting and disorienting. I could hear her voice in it. I understood better what had been going through her mind during that first year. I also struggled with why and for whom she had written it. Katy was not one to sit down and toil over an anonymous essay, and she had not left a trail of breadcrumbs for me to find it. She fought her emotional battle with cancer privately and with tremendous mental strength. She did not seek attention and often felt guilty that so many family and friends traveled from all over the country to be with her during treatments. We rarely spoke in depth about what would happen if she died or the fear we both felt. We focused our efforts on the fight, maintaining optimism, and keeping routines as normal as possible for our kids.
Katy had written for a reason that I initially struggled to understand. A friend suggested she was on assignment, producing her story of living with cancer. I think that’s right, but I will never fully know. What I do know is that her voice and story are alive in the essay that follows. Over the last year, I’ve come to accept what I could not control. What I can ensure is that a part of Katy, the wonderful mother of Riley and Will, lives on.
ONE YEAR – Katy Farmer
I am spending Valentine’s day on a table getting a sigmoidoscopy, a procedure that entails a small tube with a camera in it snaking up my rear end so that the camera can get a good look at my tumor. The images are broadcast onto a TV on the wall so my 4cm colon tumor looks like an ugly, angry planet up on the screen. Seinfeld once did an episode on “good naked” versus “bad naked,” and I’m pretty sure this qualifies for the latter. This is romance in the age of cancer.
These procedures used to terrify me and required heavy narcotics to get through, but a year of cancer treatment hardens you. Now it’s old hat. My husband, who I continually tell does not need to see this, holds my hand and I catch him look at his phone for work emails before we start so I know some of the crippling anxiety that came with a surprise diagnosis of stage four colon cancer at 42 have become the new normal a little more than a year later.
It is a blur of flowers, notes and doctor appointments for different opinions and lasagnas being dropped off and scouring the internet for information which usually sends you into a tailspin of tears. Just as I was to start chemo I dipped into one cancer support group and someone had asked if anyone else had lost their teeth from the chemo. My husband took away my computer for a while after that. You do this, all while trying to stay normal for your kids who, despite your best efforts and family taking them for surprise ice cream trips, very much know something big is up.
A teenage boyfriend once gave me a mixtape that had a song called “Live like you’re dying” on it. He was probably trying to be deep, I don’t really remember. With all due respect to the country star who sang it, no dumber words have been written. Ok, maybe if we knew a meteor was headed to earth and we had 48 hours you would gather loved ones, tell them what they mean to you and eat McDonald’s french fries and ice cream and Xanax to your heart’s content. The reality, or my reality of living like you are dying, is really more like purgatory. I feel good except on the days right after chemo, but my old life is over. Just try and make a long-term plan with cancer. We would love to come visit this summer…as long as A) I’m not in some treatment hell and B) am alive. It sucks. Thanks to a wonderful primary doctor my cancer was caught early, before I had symptoms, but that ugly planet tumor had a few months to send his friends to my lungs to set up shop. It took a lot of tests to conclude the cancer had indeed spread because the tumors are so small. But they are there. Which is not good.
In one of my many Google searches I stumbled on a cancer survivability calculator. You input your age, cancer type, and a few other characteristics of your tumor and voila! It gives you your choice of your 1, 3, and 5 year survivability chances plotted on a nice graph. It’s like a malignant version of one of those fortune tellers you make in middle school that tells you who you will marry, or the formula of your porn name which is the combo of your first pet’s name and the street you lived on as a kid (Corky Lee, not bad). My graph looks like a plane crash. I looked up the researcher’s name who probably spent years on his nifty creation and wanted to write him a letter that said, “Ha! I made it past a year, you suck.” But I won’t. I do hope he spends most of his time in a tiny office in a basement which I know isn’t nice. He was probably trying to be helpful. My real doctors won’t answer me on how much time I have. They say it’s impossible to know and science is changing fast and all the estimates are based on old data. They tell me to stay off the internet, but as you can see I’m not so great at following directions.
So purgatory continues and I am lucky for that. I know every time I go into an oncologist waiting room it could be a lot worse. Early on in a crowded waiting room at a fancy cancer center in New York I listened to a son try and fill out a survey for his mother who sat listless in a chair connected to an oxygen tank. “Ma, hey MA, they want to know how many cigarettes you smoke a week.” Ma sat there and batted her hands at her sons as they yelled at poor Ma to get the energy up to fill out the cancer survey. I popped a Xanax and stood in the corner and tried to take a deep breath while I tried to not imagine my future as poor Ma. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about cancer before I had it, but I can tell you now, no one deserves this.
In general I don’t fit in with my cancer fighting compatriots who are usually older men surrounded by concerned wives and grown kids, but I don’t fit in with my old life either. There is no such thing as a “little case” of stage four cancer. It takes over your life and it is terrifying. There are days it takes every ounce of strength I have just to get out of bed and face my new reality. A few months into my cancer treatment I made a friend my age and was so excited by her humor and strength. But her cancer was pretty advanced and she passed away four months after we met. Because I don’t have a lot of people with cancer to compare myself to, for a while I decided that because she lived 18 months post diagnosis, I would too. Her cancer spread at a certain month into treatment and mine would too. I had a few days where I was so sad I couldn’t get out of bed. It was crazy thinking as our cases are very different but for now I am not making any more friends at the oncologist’s office. Not that the old men really want to hang with me either.
In my old life people are wonderful and ask how I am feeling and what they can do. Right now it truly isn’t much. I get a lot of, “You don’t look like you have cancer,” which for some reason I think is pretty funny. I think people expect the Lifetime movie version of cancer, or for me to look like their Aunt Ida who died a while back from it. After I was diagnosed, I had a sick thought that at least cancer would transform me into a waif but so far the steroids I’m on to give me necessary energy make me more East German swimmer than Gisele. My husband’s old boss told me my wig looked terrific. He was surprised when I said it was indeed my actual hair. Cold caps which freeze your scalp so the chemo doesn’t get to your hair follicles have been torture, but I have my hair which has been a big psychological boost even if it makes chemo one long ice cream freeze headache.
People are usually curious how this could happen to me and a lot of conversations turn to the topic. I’m sure I would be curious too if I heard a fellow Mom at pick up had a serious case of cancer. “Did she smoke? Family history? Closet drinking problem?” The answer is I have no idea. I don’t have a family history, ate pretty well and exercised. Colon cancer is hitting people under 50 at higher rates but researchers don’t know why. Thanks to my “colon cancer and research” Google alert, I know there are MANY theories that there is a link to poor diet and obesity which always gets my hackles up a bit. One friend keeps telling me how nutrition is so important, as if a closet Slim Jim and Twinkie habit got me into this mess. Another told me, “It’s clear we have to listen to our bodies.” Whatever. Another friend of my daughter’s told me her mom said I got it from my cell phone. Who knows? I have had more than a few moments of tears and why me, but in the end I think sometimes bad, extremely unfair things happen to good people. Just watch the evening news sometime and our world is full of examples. I doubt those people whose homes are destroyed in a tornado deserved it either. This time, it just happened to me.
So a year into “Living like I’m dying,” I have decided that this approach just isn’t for me. I am not in any way normal but I am taking tentative steps to rejoin life. Lying in bed recovering from treatment watching cable news all day is enough to make even the able bodied deeply depressed. Some good friends got me back playing tennis this past summer which I had given up out of fear a ball could hit me and cause a blood clot which had happened after the chemo port was put in my chest. I’m careful, but this small act was a tiny victory. I go to the gym and work with a trainer when I feel strong enough. He jokes with me and tells me to stop making excuses when I say I can’t do a sit up because I have cancer. People who treat me like a normal person and don’t look at me with pity are my absolute favorites. Funny texts from friends at work who say something happened that made them think of me bring real joy. Screenshots of great examples of Instagram humble braggarts always bring a smile to my face. Coffees and even sometimes a rare dinner out with friends return me to real life and it is beautiful.
My extended family has a huge text group which I use for cancer updates and even bad news can turn funny when someone from the older generation chimes in with something completely nonsensical. “Wendy we are out of mayo” from someone 3,000 miles away to 15 or so cousins and siblings and spouses. The same group also has one with me removed so they can talk behind my back. I can only imagine what they say.
After one CT scan showed some growth after many rounds of chemo, I took in the not so great results and then headed to pick up my daughter at dance class. Behind dark glasses to hide my teary eyes I live tweeted to my family how I was scanning the room of watching moms for a potential, eligible new wife for my great husband and future motherless children. Some cousins were trying to talk me off a cliff, and my poor dad had no idea what was going on. The total absurdity ended when the matron of the dance class pulled me aside to ask me if my daughter might be diabetic. “What!? NO! Why?” I asked behind my wannabe Jackie O. glasses. Apparently my nine-year-old daughter had been asking for frequent water breaks after an over enthusiastic rendition of the Mexican hat dance. Did I know that frequent thirst can be a sign of diabetes she asked? The absurdity of life with cancer can only be overtaken by the greater absurdity of raising children in New York City.
I have even tried to return to my office, which is decidedly something not recommended in that “Live like you’re dying” song. Having a routine and some normalcy and chats at the coffee machine are actually heavenly. Someone smart once said you need a reason to get dressed and leave the house in the morning and in my experience that is very true. I’m not great with too much free time. A lot of people see me in the hall after some time away and say nice things. Many ask within 30 seconds what am I doing there and what am I working on. It’s a competitive place. At this point I am beginning to have post cancer sea legs and I believe work will be great for me mentally and will certainly save me from too many hours on Google cancer research.
I feel like I am giving advice similar to what you find in one of those books of inspiration your grandmother keeps behind the downstairs toilet, but here goes. I have spent a lot of time trying to maintain meaningful friendships and relationships with people in my life. I am very close with my immediate family, my far flung extended family, and I absolutely adore my husband who has come to each of my treatments like a champ even though he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Those investments in relationships have paid off as I go through this. I am lucky even if my stupid survivability calculator says otherwise. People have gotten on planes or met me at the hospital and just held my hand when I needed it. Fellow moms have picked up and distracted my kids when I or they needed it. Small acts of kindness matter. It is what makes life worthwhile. In my old life as a TV producer one of the last stories I worked on before being diagnosed was about Syrian refugees arriving in the U.S. Two friends flew down to D.C. and took one of the families out to Target to buy towels and clothes for their kids. They went back to their tiny, nearly empty apartment and ate stewed goat and let the father drive them to the airport despite less than ideal understandings of left and right and road signs. That mattered. Friends coming to chemo got so loud telling funny stories from high school that the nurses started giving us the good room with the door that shut. Everyone is busy with kids and jobs but people make time and I am deeply grateful for that. And I know people love to rail on the medical system, but I have had caring doctors and nurses who have encouraged me and hugged me and given me their cell phone numbers and let me cry in their office or swear when they stick me with hundreds of blood draws and shots. These people are heaven sent and I love them even though they stick me and prod me and tell me how great it is I never lose weight and fill me with poison that hopefully poisons the cancer first.
I may be dying but hopefully not for a while. I am doing everything I can to avoid it. After my first bi-weekly chemo treatment I called my doctor and asked for more chemo so we could really get this going. He said no and now thinks I’m a little nuts too as I bombard him with studies I find on the internet. I have gladly taken suggestions from Uber drivers, Chinese medicine practitioners, and a woman on the bus who heard me talking and wrote down a tea that cured her sister. I will fight this and at least try to keep my humanity and my humor intact. Many days I fail completely. Many days are filled with tears when the weight of my diagnosis hits me. But I will not live like I’m dying.
P.S. How to write a condolence note and 17 wonderful reader comments on grief.
(Top illustration by Alessandra Olanow. Bottom photo of Katy Farmer and her children courtesy of her husband Colin Farmer.)