The Thief: When Cancer Returns

Jim and Elaine 2014

Jim and Elaine 2014

“I’m calling from Dana Farber,” a hushed male voice said on the phone.

Oh no. It’s my brother.

“Why are you at Dana Farber?” I asked in a quiet measured tone. Dana Farber Cancer Institute was where he was treated for cancer last spring. No hurry since I didn’t want an answer to my question.

“They found cancer on a scan,” he said. “I’m here getting a treatment plan.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah, it’s bad. I feel well though. My neck’s been hurting for a while.”

“Yes, you said that.”

In the hospital, April 2016

In the hospital, April 2016

“The internist thought it was arthritic changes he saw in the x-ray, so we wasted some time with that. Then they ordered a scan.”

“Where is it?” Dumb question, but it’s what we ask about cancer. Tears dripped from my eyes, but I felt remarkably calm. I was familiar with this underworld of cancer and illness.

I remembered when he told me last spring that there was a fifty-fifty chance they removed all the cancer when they removed his esophagus. I remembered those excruciating early weeks of recovery and months of feeding tubes and how he didn’t complain. How he rose from the ashes to play tennis and travel and teach. When we spoke each week, he said he felt well and was grateful. Although he’s a biostatistician, he didn’t dwell on his odds.

I remembered how his oncologist said if cancer returned, it would be difficult to treat. Jim was full of hope when he told me that.

“What’s the treatment?” I asked.

“They’ll give me a week of strong radiation and then chemo. I might have a few years if I respond well. If I don’t respond, I don’t have much time.”

Jim Vic Janice Elaine 2006

Brother Jim, Vic, Jim’s wife Janice, and Elaine 2006

I remembered the despair when the best oncologists didn’t understand what was happening with Vic.  I remembered treatments that led to nothing except suffering. I remembered the last chemotherapy that was stronger than he was. Vic would rather die than give up, so he had said yes to that chemo. My husband and my big brother had a few things in common.

“I love you, my dear brother. I’m so sorry. I wish I could help.”

“I love you, too,” he said. “I feel well,” he added to reassure me. I heard the sadness in his voice, the grief of someone facing death.

Jim and Elaine 1949

Jim and Elaine 1949

With our dad at our grandpa's funeral, 1955

With our dad at our grandpa’s funeral, 1955

Jim was my only sibling, four years older. He stood by me when our dad died when I was fourteen. We did our best to be each other’s family. After we married, our lives moved in separate directions, a slow pulling away.

Then we grew older and began losing things. We reached out to each other.

“You don’t need to come,” he told me when his daughter was ill.

Jim dancing with his daughter, 2013

Jim dancing with his daughter, 2013

“She’s my only niece. I want to be there.” I argued my case and won.

When Vic was diagnosed with a cancer no one could name or treat, I called my big brother. He was dean of a school of public health then. On Labor Day weekend in 2006, he contacted his colleagues. By Tuesday morning Vic had an appointment with a Dana Farber trained lymphoma specialist at Strong Hospital in Rochester, NY.

My brother called often while Vic was ill. After Vic’s death, he called more.

“If you ever have a crisis of any kind, financial or anything, I’ll help you,” he said to me.

Jim and Elaine, 2013

Jim and Elaine, 2013

I’m not facing my own mortality, not yet, but I just lost the one person other than my sons who would say such a kind thing and truly mean it.

Cancer steals everything.


I wrote this piece in present tense a year and a half ago. It was published in The Healing Muse, an annual journal of literary and visual art published by SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities, Fall 2015. After I wrote a draft, I sent it to Jim. He wept and encouraged me to submit it. Jim’s memorial service is this week, so I want to share it with you.

Does writing help you digest grief? Have you tried making a list of qualities of the person who died? Naming Jim’s strengths and weaknesses brings up memories and sorrow, but mostly love. Waiting for Another Dance is a short history of dancing with my big brother. I wrote about Jim’s last hours in Coming to Carry Him Home.

  1. Clearly you two come from great stock, Elaine. The pictures are precious. I’m grateful that you have your two sons to love and to lean on. I will be thinking of you this week and sending my love. ♥

    • Marty, after my dad died and my mom moved to Europe when I was 17, Jim tried to be a parent and a big brother to me. He was a lifeline. I’ll always be grateful for his love and the closeness we shared in his last years.

  2. Melancholy, yet beautiful Elaine. I particularly loved this “Then we grew older and began losing things’, a very subtle yet powerful statement.
    I wish you strength to get through the memorial Elaine. You are blessed to have been so loved. 🙂 May peace be with you. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. I look forward to the memorial service although I’ll likely get weepy as I read a piece I’ve prepared about being with Jim in his boat on the river. So I’ll feel a little vulnerable, but that’s nothing new. I never forget the blessings. Not for a minute.

  3. It’s good Jim encouraged you to send it to The Healing Muse Elaine. It’s as fresh now as it was then. No, I’ve never tried listing positive and negative qualities of those loved who’ve died. I can imagine it would be an interesting exercise. I remember some months ago when my younger son got married and my brother wouldn’t attend because of his depression. The family, i.e. niece and nephews, his siblings (i.e. I and my sister) texted him messages saying about his wonderful qualities and their memories of him. Unbelievably, miraculously, the love that poured out from us all, shifted his decision and he came. Thank you. I’m glad I’ve (also) been reminded of that.

    • I’m glad your brother came to the wedding, Susan. A little outpouring of love, especially for a depressed person, is healing balm. I hope he got lots of hugs at that wedding.

      I wrote this piece right after Jim called me and took it to an appointment with my Jungian therapist/dreamworker. I said, “I love this essay, but I can’t do anything with it because it would betray my brother’s privacy.” She said, “Why don’t you let him decide that?” So I gathered my courage and sent it to him. Yes! He didn’t hesitate. I submitted another piece to The Healing Muse this year about being with Jim a few months before he died. He also read and approved that one. I submitted it the week before he died, and it was accepted.

  4. You are blessed to have such wonderful memories of your brother to carry with you. Not all families are so lucky. The way you’ve chosen to remember him is beautiful and powerful, and I’ll be holding you and your sons in prayer this week as you prepare to say good-bye to him one last time. Much love and peace to you.

    • Thank you for your blessing. You’re right, Amy. I’m grateful for the closeness I felt with my brother when I was young and again recently. I never took it for granted, partly because our relationship was distant for over thirty years. There were no arguments or bad scenes. He was very busy with his life and I let that be (with hurt feelings). More than a dozen years ago, I pushed my way back into his life. “No need to come,” he said when there was trouble in his world. “I want to come. I need to come,” I said. That happened right to the end. He’d suggest I come later when he was feeling better. I’d say I’m coming now for my sake, not yours. He didn’t want to bother anyone, but when cancer returned a year and a half ago, he said to me, “I’ll need you at the end.” I wanted to be there. Sometimes it doesn’t work to push to get closer to someone who’s drifted away, but sometimes it changes everything.

  5. Oh, Elaine, this is beautiful and sad and beautiful. Love and warm hugs.

    • Thank you, Patti. It’s wonderful to hear from you. I’m fine and a little weepy–so I’m fine with being a little weepy. I’m glad I showed up for him and he showed up for me. So fortunate.

  6. Your piece pulled on my heart strings from the beginning to the end. Death … loss … brings us up close and personal with the things that truly matter in life. It rips away the trivial, the encumbrances that fool us into thinking life is forever as we so easily let the people we cherish fall by the wayside. Your tears are tears of love, of special moments of vulnerability and closeness … tears are a gift …to you and to others. Let them flow freely. They are your rite of passage. I feel fortunate to have visited this place today. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Dorothy. Yes, tears are a gift. I’m not shy about crying. I wept every day for more than two years after my husband’s death. I’ve shed many tears for my brother. On the other hand, my open style with expressing grief isn’t for everyone in my brother’s family. Fortunately, in the last three years, I’ve learned to read emotional pieces to others without sobbing. I’ve also had a private memorial for my brother and spent many hours digesting his death. Still, my feelings will be obvious when I read at my brother’s memorial service tomorrow. Another rite of passage.

      I feel fortunate that you visited, too.

  7. Siblings usually share the longest history with us on this earth. Spouses come in our teens or twenties, parents often precede us in death (mother-in-law Virginia is a strong exception!), but in the natural course of things, brothers and sisters usually have a life span similar to our own. No doubt your bonds were strong, like a corpus callosum bridging the two brain hemispheres . . . maybe a stretch here, but you did mention Jim was a biostatistician.

    Cancer is a thief. It stole my dad at 71 in 1986.

    Does writing help me digest grief? Yes, indeed. Approaching the second anniversary of Mother’s death, I hit the pause button in our moving process, and put my tears to work on a tribute that will “air” next week.

    Hugs to you, Elaine.

    • Marian, we were deeply connected and that became more obvious the last few years. I’m grateful for conversations we had alone the last few months because that’s when he was most unguarded.

      I don’t know anyone who hasn’t suffered under the thievery of cancer. I know writing helps you through grief as it helps me. We’re fortunate to have it. Thank you for the hug. I’m always interested in your insightful responses to anything I write. Sending love on the anniversary of your mom’s death.

  8. I love seeing the pictures of your beautiful family members, Elaine. How lucky you are to have had them in your life. Your brother was so special. Oh for those days when everyone was healthy, happy, and dancing together. Beautiful memories now.

    • Remember that, Robin? Everyone healthy and thinking they would live forever. We were indeed lucky. And now there is memory, but also a long learning curve that doesn’t seem to end. You know about that. You’ve worked so hard and gone through so much.

  9. You have a special gift. Your writing is always so elegant and so sensitive. Reading it brings the tears to my own eyes. I enjoy finding the features of your brother’s face in your own and visa versa. I am lucky to know you and honored to be your friend! D.

    • Thank you, Dennis. I never thought I looked much like my brother, but we must resemble each other. He was the tall blue-eyed guy who looked like my mom’s family. I was the short brown-haired girl who took after her dad. Jim’s memorial service was yesterday. Beautiful and sad as these things are. As you might guess, my talk was he most weepy of the afternoon, but I didn’t mind shedding tears for him. Thank you for being my friend through thick and thin.

      • So you did talk? I was so hoping you would and will be looking forward to the tale.

        • Yes, in the end the memorial service became more personal, friend, and family oriented. I spoke and we also sang the song we sang as he was dying. I’m home, tired, and digesting. Thanks, Dennis.

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