That fall when dad and I had cancer at the same time

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“We’ll walk through this side by side,” my dad declared bravely, placing his hand on me. He had just been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Only a week earlier as he was driving a chainsaw in the woods to the hut, the sun was setting as he rejoiced in the splendor of the colors of October, the earthy scent of the forest. I have a picture of him in his red jacket, with his arms outstretched, looking up at the sky. “It’s the first weekend for skinny shades!” He would be saying My dad looked for the “prima” in everything. It was his idea of ​​heaven to be there in the burning leaves.

It was a terrible diagnosis. He appears to be a healthy 85-year-old with a strong constitution. He didn’t drink or smoke. He exercised regularly, played tennis and cycled into his 80s. There were some health crises: polio as a young man, prostate cancer in the 70s, chest surgery in the 80s. But he went through treatment, recovered and came back every time. He was always optimistic, planning to live to 120 according to Jewish blessings. We had always assumed that he would outdo my mother, whose constitution and optimism were decidedly less solid.


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I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I answered quietly, holding her hand. Three months ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and was now on my third round of chemo. There will be five more rounds over the next several months, then surgery and radiation. I was wondering if I would be able to make it. I felt restless and lethargic as I mourned the loss of my health and grappled with my baldness, my vulnerability, and my mortality. And now my dad was seriously ill, it was too much for a family. I wanted my dad to live, but I couldn’t imagine him going through the onslaught of chemo. He was very old. The chemo was terrible.

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I don’t need to worry. “I will go anywhere or do anything,” he pleaded with doctors to no avail. The doctors were sorry but there was no cure. He must put his affairs in order. They will do their best to keep him comfortable. After feeling very weak for several days, they admitted him to the hospital.

I was not allowed to meet. It was 2009 and the H1N1 virus was biting otherwise healthy people. My oncologist thought it too dangerous for me to travel because my immune system was compromised by chemo, so I was piped by phone for a meeting with doctors, my mom, my sister, and the rest of the team. But leukemia was roaring through my dad like an avalanche. He could no longer walk. They started talking about palliative care: first months, then weeks, then days.

My oncologist gave me his blessing when I called to say that my dad was dying and that I had to see him. When I visited over the next three days, my dad worried a lot about my mom and how she would manage on her own as she faded in and out of consciousness. He was last seen with his grandson, his son-in-law, some close friends and some special cousins. We stood around his bed and sang to him, hoping he could catch a few strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot / Comin'” to take me home.

Less than three weeks after his diagnosis, my dad was gone. It was the middle of November. By then the autumn leaves had been on the ground for weeks, wet, frost-colored and tinged with color, the trees ready for their long cold sleep. We planned smarts around our chemo schedule, for three weeks when side effects would be at their lowest ebb and least awful. The hall was packed with overflow. We told stories. We sang songs. We were reminded of a man who loved life and lived it to the fullest. The cover of the event was a picture of my father in the autumn leaves.

I went through the rest of the chemo, withered and spent. Then my husband and I made the crazy decision to move to Mexico against all advice, ordering a wheelchair from the airport. I was a wreck but slowly, I started to gain some strength and even got some peach fuzz on my head as the chemo slowly left my body. I swam in the ocean, the warmth, the color and the possibility that I could make it.

There are still surgeries, radiation, complications from radiation, hospitalization, and cataract surgery. But a year after my diagnosis, I was cancer free and was done with treatment.

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I am good. It’s been 12 years since my diagnosis, almost 12 years after my dad died. Fall foliage is back in all its glory, even more spectacular than usual amid the pandemic. My dad and I didn’t have to go through cancer treatment side by side. But he’s still with me, reminding me to savor this and all the other prime moments.

Tamara Levine lives in Ottawa.

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