Wednesday, October 24, 2007

(Very, Very) Cautiously Optimistic

This is not the post I thought I'd be writing today. In a good way.

Last week, we found out that my mother-in-law has a malignant form of skin cancer. She's already been treated for basal cell carcinoma, and apparently the new lesion she noticed back in June did not prompt the dermatologist to take any course of action but watchful waiting.

The diagnosis he initially offered early last week was Merkel carcinoma, a rare, aggressive, often fatal cancer. At the time, he had not yet heard from the pathologist at the local cancer hospital. My in-laws entered an anxiety- and sleepless night-filled limbo. Later in the week, the pathologist report negated that diagnosis: She actually has spindle cell melanoma. Still bad, just not as horrific as the first impression.

The dermatologist strongly implied that the depth of the lesion imparted a very negative prognosis: the deeper the tumor, the greater the chance for metastasis to the nearest lymph node and other organs. He scheduled appointments with a surgeon and an oncologist for this week.

My in-laws live 6 hours from us and the rest of their family. Only one of their children currently lives with them (Jeff has two sisters who are considerably younger than him and his older brother). They felt isolated, and scared to death. I think they both were absolutely convinced that my mother-in-law was dying. In the face of that fear, what they needed more than anything else was to be with their children and grandchildren and other family -- and so they drove to our house over the weekend. We may have largely ignored the elephant in the room, but the laughter and warmth and love that suffused our house as all the relatives visited were the best tonic possible.

It was hard to watch them drive away on Sunday, to know what was awaiting them.

Which brings us to yesterday. The surgeon told them that although the lesion was deep and needed to be removed right away, it had not yet reached the depth that would worry him. She'll have the closest lymph node removed and biopsied, and then she'll undergo surgery to completely remove the tumor. What follows depends on the biopsy results -- the oncologist will have one strategy if the result is negative, another if the biopsy indicates that the cancer has spread.

It's all still very scary, but we feel a little better knowing that this may have been caught in time.

I hope that my optimism is not misplaced; too often I jump right off the cliff into the worst-case-scenario waters because it at least protects me from being blindsided. In this case, though, I can't embrace fatalism -- and I don't want to. There's too much uncertainty ahead for us to indulge too much in pessimism now.