July 30, 2013

Betrayal of the Body: The Secret Life of Cancer

Vic in Spain, summer 2007
Vic in Spain, summer 2007
Vic in Spain, summer 2007

It was only a little flu. After Thanksgiving break, Vic’s students often returned to campus with international viruses. His flu shot wasn’t effective, even though mine was. Just the luck of the draw.

Symptoms weren’t severe—runny nose, coughing, and fatigue. Vic kept teaching. He stayed with strength training and aerobic exercise, although it was a push. He had an appetite.

“I’m tired,” he complained. “I don’t have any vitality.”

“Maybe you should see Michael,” I suggested. Michael Eisman was our dear friend and doctor.

“Nah, I’ll be OK. I’m getting old. Maybe it’s time to retire.”

Vic was the strongest, fittest 65-year-old man imaginable. Retire? I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but it was a relief to consider the possibility. We hated living in two places, moving back and forth between our home in Hector on the weekends and the “work camp” in Hamilton during the week. Vic taught at Colgate and I had a sweet little job leading women’s nutrition and exercise classes in the Faculty and Staff Wellness Program, but we wanted to live in one place, at home on our land in Hector.

In Vic's hospital room
Elaine in Vic’s hospital room

“I want to write and give lectures and workshops,” Vic said in December. “I can’t do that, teach, and commute. I’m just too tired.”

I assumed he’d get better during semester break—a full month at home in Hector with no teaching and traveling. In January when we returned to Colgate, he rallied, but still had dark circles under his eyes and constant congestion. A week in the sunshine during spring break made things worse, but in April his symptoms receded.

“I feel better,” he said, and he did. He prepared for a lecture/workshop trip to Sweden in May and a week in June at a conference in Spain. He’d be rested by then. We were sure.

“I think you should see Michael,” I said before he left for the first trip.

“I’m OK. I’ll see him at the usual time in August,” Vic assured me.

“I’ll make an appointment so you can see him when you return from Sweden,” I insisted. Vic agreed, so I knew he was scared, too. Still he felt better than he had for months when he left. When he returned two weeks later, his ankles and feet were puffy and he was exhausted.

Blood tests showed elevated eosinophils, a white blood cell reading often associated with allergy or parasites. We began a strict elimination diet—no dairy, no soy, no gluten, no sugar, no eggs. This is what nutritionists do when they panic.

“I don’t like the feel of this,” our friend and chiropractor Fred Weiner said as he probed the hard lymph glands in Vic’s groin. “I’ll call Michael.” After a sonogram, Michael called an oncologist.

Vic during stem cell transplant, 2007
Vic during stem cell transplant, 2007

“I think you have lymphoma,” the local oncologist said. “Fortunately, lymphoma is usually treatable.” The doctor did many tests. Five labs looked at the bone marrow sample and couldn’t make a diagnosis. We fretted as lymph vessels and glands hardened throughout Vic’s body. His skin reddened and his nose ran constantly now. Weeks turned into a month. What could it be? No one knew.

We got a diagnosis at Strong Hospital in late August, nine months after symptoms began. The oncologist said the lymphoma was rare, incurable, and nearly impossible to diagnosis. By then, Vic’s swollen face and neck looked like a three-dimensional map of the lymph system.

Slowly, inexorably, cancer had invaded our safe loving world like a thief in the night and it held us in its grip. All along, those annoying little symptoms were preparing us for a complete betrayal of the body.


What sort of illness or life-changing issue tricked you before showing its full face?  For other articles about coping with Vic’s illness, see The Cancer Survivor, Speeding to Strong Cancer Center, or Gratitude and Grief.


  1. August 15, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Patti Hall


    This post resonates with me and my story. Like Vic, my Paul was strong and healthy when leukemia crept in. Thank you.

    1. August 15, 2013 at 9:03 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Dear Patti, I’m sorry you had to face your husband’s cancer, too. When I was a young child, people were worried about TB still. Now it’s all cancer, and we worry for good reason. I’m sorry you lost your strong healthy Paul and hope you’re re-creating a good life on your own–not the same life, not the life you/we dreamed of having, but a good life. I look forward to reading more at 1writeplace.com to find more about you and how you’re doing. Warmly, Elaine

  2. August 5, 2013 at 12:32 am

    Ann Napoletan


    (((( Elaine ))))

    1. August 5, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Elaine loves hugs. Thank you, Ann.

  3. August 2, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Judy Brizendine


    Thank you, Elaine, for sharing your poignant story. Such a reminder that our lives can change unexpectedly at any time, and that we’re all part of this human family–each facing the same possibilities, pain, joy, challenges, struggles, and triumphs. Our stories encourage and strengthen each other. I always appreciate what you’ve written. And this is completely off-subject, but your photographs bring me such joy and inspiration! I look forward to your fb posts so very much!!

    1. August 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Judy. Your encouragement means so much because your writing about the initiation of grief transforms and fills me with hope. Vic was an excellent photographer, especially with portraits of people and flowers. Although I don’t have his technical skill and never mastered his fancy camera, photography is one way I carry him along with me. Within a week of Vic’s early June death, I understood that Nature would heal me. I walked for many hours, watched the constant transformation of plants and wildlife, watched the subtleties of light, and appreciated the constant changes around me and also within me. I’m lucky to live surrounded by beauty and community.

  4. August 2, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Lynne Taetzsch


    Elaine, thanks for sharing this frightening experience you and Vic went through. It reminds us that none of us are “safe” and we all die. I felt especially vulnerable after my husband, Adrian, died. Any time I felt an ache or pain, I was sure it was the beginning of the end.

    1. August 2, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      I remember that Adrian had dementia, so you must have also had a period where something was off but you didn’t know what it was. It’s normal even if unpleasant to feel vulnerable when the one who would have cared for us during illness isn’t there to take on that roll. I’m grateful I had such a love at all, but it’s a challenge to make the transition and set up a new support system. Thanks for responding, Lynne. It’s always nice to hear from you.

  5. August 1, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Robin Botie


    For me it was the burgundy snowflakes. It was the beginning of spring and the peonies and irises were beginning to blossom. And burgundy snowflakes (petecchiae) and purple bruises blossomed all over my daughter. It was a beautiful evening outside but amid all the budding and blossoming, cancer hit home.

    1. August 1, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      What images you paint, Robin! It’s amazing, isn’t it? Nature goes on with Her changing seasons, flowers, lengthening days, and joyous exuberance while our world stops and takes an about face with the appearance of odd changes in skin and vague discomforts. I’m sure when many people read this blog, they’re surprised by the stealthiness of cancer, but unfortunately, you know all too much. Sending you love and comfort.

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