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Open arms, then closed doors

Times editor Barry Bradley vows to be open with his wife and readers who want to talk about the cancer he battles. But some days it's hard to let the world in.

By BARRY BRADLEY
Published August 14, 2005


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[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
“Jean is the most important person in my life,” Barry says, “and I need her strength to get through this.”


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For Barry and Jean, there have been more smiles than tears, but their relationship has been strained at times by his fight with the disease.
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Editor's note: Two days after Christmas, Barry Bradley, a Times Metro news editor, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove part of his left lung, followed by five months of chemotherapy. He was hopeful that the surgery and the chemo would be a cure. They weren't. This is the fourth installment of his fight against a killer within. To read his other stories and some of the letters he received in response, please go to www.sptimes.com/bradley

I'm not sure which will kill me first - cancer or my wife.

Sometimes there are angry days between Jean and me that come from nowhere. It could be over money, my cancer, worry or just plain grating on each other's nerves. In my mind, she has every right to clang me upside the head with a steel skillet.

It isn't a matter of loving each other, that's a given, but the pressure of all we're going through builds into a volcanic heat that explodes into a verbal lava of harsh words and misunderstandings.

But the thing to remember is that it's part of the disease. During those hurtful episodes the tension is as thick as the sphagnum moss hanging from the oak tree outside.

Sometimes, without knowing it, I get very quiet. I slam my mental doors shut and I lock myself inside a windowless room with my cancer.

The doors are closed and bolted. No one can break through. Jean has begun to recognize these times. I can be working at my computer, watching TV, sitting alone outside in our gazebo, just any place at all.

Suddenly, she is closed out. She knows it, and there's not a thing she can do about it.

My mind is a dangerous place to go alone. But I have to go there. It's part of my dealing with imminent death. I don't fully understand it myself. It's just a force that comes over me that pulls my consciousness inside.

Jean knows she has done nothing to bring this on. But it's painful for her all the same. The man she had hoped to grow old with, her partner and best friend for life, is not going to be around much longer. Who knows what anger, fear and hurt she must feel? In response, she will sometimes go into her own world as well. And it's a room I cannot enter.

At this point, it seems appropriate that Jean puts it in her own words:

* * *

I have been a hospice professional for 15 years. I have given comfort, assurance and hope to so many terminal patients. I have taught families how to care for their loved ones and have helped them face the reality of a dying spouse.

When a family member feels guilty about arguing with a patient, or is on the receiving end of a patient's anger, I explain to them that if a patient needs to vent feelings - good or bad - it has to be done with the person they love the most or it doesn't count.

The frustrating thing is, I have all this knowledge but I can't apply it to my own life. The very idea that Barry is terminal and may soon become a hospice patient is surreal to me.

Our counselor was so pleased when we were going through the stages of death and dying all by ourselves. The only problem with the stages we are going through is that we are seldom on the same page together. Barry may have acceptance, while I'm in denial. The following week, he may be in an anger phase and I'm depressed. Keeping the lines of communication open is so important, but our marriage is no longer a union of two people. It is a man, a woman and a disease. And a threesome never works. To me the cancer has to go - but I can't make it go away.

Our cat, Phyllis, is doing so well on "kitty Prozac" that I'm thinking of taking some myself.

Barry doesn't realize that I am seeing him decline, day by day, week by week. His skin color, his wheezing at night. His shortness of breath and bone pain when he tries to work on one of his projects.

I just don't know if I can do this. I am strong for Barry, yet not strong enough for myself. But I also have no regrets. Our three-year marriage has had far more laughter than tears, and somehow we will fight through this together.

* * *

I'm battling an inexorable killer, and sometimes I need absolute solitude. It takes courage and determination for me to eventually pry open the doors and let Jean back in, but it has to be done. I cannot leave her on an island of isolation, because she is suffering, too.

But we are not alone in this.

Of the hundreds of letters I've received in response to the first articles, fully a third have come from widows who grieve that they and their husbands did not communicate about his cancer. For whatever reason - usually denial - they didn't talk about the things that are important. They did not share their feelings and thoughts with their loved ones. Soon, it was too late.

At every stage during cancer diagnosis and treatment, we need all the help we can get - especially from those who love us most. Jean is the most important person in my life and I need her strength to get through this.

Please, please do not close out those who love you the most.

Sharing the burden

Oddly, I sometimes find it easier to open up to strangers. Recently I was in a Publix picking up some ice cream. A woman nearby, also buying ice cream, stopped and stared at me.

"Are you him?" she asked.

"Yes. I am," I said, knowing exactly what she meant.

She confided that my stories had helped her so much. She shared her own story of cancer, and said my stories had helped her understand so much. She thanked me, we hugged and parted.

On another occasion at the same supermarket, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Aren't you the gentleman writing those cancer stories for the Times?

I told him I was.

"Would you do me a huge favor?" he asked. "My wife has cancer and she's waiting in the car. She has read all of your stories. Would you come with me outside and talk to her?"

We paid for our groceries and I followed him to his car. I sat with his wife and talked - about life, cancer and all the steps in between - as my ice cream melted on the hot asphalt. When we were done, I went back inside to buy more ice cream, feeling blessed that I had been able to help someone else deal with this awful disease.

Several days later I walked into a trophy shop to have a plaque made for the guy who did such a masterful job repainting my Porsche. The two women inside recognized me instantly. They went on at some length about my courage in being able to tell my story in such an honest, straightforward way.

In short, I get stopped on the street, in a store, or any place by people who just want to talk to me about my battle and tell me about their own struggle - either with themselves or a loved one who is dying of cancer. Sometimes a total stranger will walk up, give me a gentle hug and say "thank you." I am left stunned, yet very grateful.

I never turn anyone down who wants to talk. I can't. I just can't.

In fact, I've become aware of a marvelous freedom. I can tell people exactly how much they have meant to me, how much I love them and how much I appreciate their cards and letters that have helped me through the battle thus far.

I shared with a colleague just the other day how much I appreciated her kindness and patience years ago as she taught me a new job here at the Times. Were it not for the terminal nature of my disease, she would never have known of my professional fondness for her.

More and more I'm sharing personal thoughts with friends, telling them of my affection for them, and some personal things they need to know about our sometimes very long friendships.

Unlocking the doors

As for Jean and me, eventually I unlock the doors to my inner self. Sometimes it takes hours or even days. I cannot explain what happens but suddenly I begin talking and I try to explain where I've been and what I've been thinking. She seems to treasure those moments. I share my inner feelings with complete honesty and openness.

There was a recent incident in which Jean inadvertently brought me back to this planet. A dead limb had fallen from the upper reaches of one of our many oak trees and landed on our roof. Jean asked when I might be able to get it off.

I said I would do it immediately. Then a thought came to mind. She needs to know how to handle things like this when I'm not around. So I said I would get it off the roof if she would let me teach her how to use the chain saw.

I was shocked when she agreed. Maybe she did this on purpose; I'll never know, but she's pretty smart when it comes to dealing with people.

I got the ladder and heaved the heavy limb off the roof. I grabbed the chain saw and showed her exactly how to stand, keeping her legs away from the spinning chain. In two shakes of a lamb's tail, she had that limb cut into firewood.

Somehow, that opened me up, and we began to talk. I told her where I had been in my private world and the episode was over. We were one again, together in the fight.

I can't say it's always some kind of project that brings me home, but it worked that time.

Other times I just begin talking. We turn off the TV or stop what we are doing and share everything just as if I had not been gone for days. And all is well. Until the next time.

The latest news

I'm sitting in a treatment room at my oncologist's office. Waiting. It's cold. The doctor comes in and begins to explain the latest CT scan. The news is not good. Some patients, he says, need cheerleaders. I don't. I want the absolute, straightforward, unvarnished truth.

The tumor nearest my sternum is continuing to invade the bone. We decide to add a new chemo drug to my regimen. It's one of the strongest and most toxic chemo drugs on the market. It has to be given in very slow drips because the chemical can kill the patient if it goes in too fast. On the days I get this poisonous chemical, it takes about eight hours of sitting there with a needle in my vein.

In his quiet, straightforward way, the doctor says I probably will live through Christmas - but after that it will be day by day. Bone cancer defies treatment. The chemo can add a few months to my life, but not much longer.

I also may have to undergo another surgical procedure as the cancer continues to invade the bone. The first sign will be intense lower back pain. That means the vertebrae are beginning to fracture. The doctors will inject a cementlike mixture to fuse the vertebrae in an attempt to prevent paralysis. And I simply refuse to slither around the house like a snail, so I will undergo this procedure with enthusiasm and hope. Besides, the interior of our house is built on several levels, making a wheelchair a difficult option.

But in order to keep a positive attitude, I still have to believe in God's miracles. They happen every day; we just don't usually recognize them. A miracle for me would be that the cancer suddenly stops eating its way through my bone. Inexplicably, it can happen, and maybe it will.

I've learned that suffering is part of the gift of life. You play the hand you're dealt. As a letter writer said, you can't expect a bull not to attack you simply because you're a vegetarian.

Also you cannot confuse the soul within you with the body that carries it around. The body will fail you. The soul will not.

I'll be back soon with another update, and I truly feel blessed to have so many of you writing me letters and e-mails. Time does not permit me to answer them all, though I'd like to. They help more than you'll ever know. Until next time, may God bless you all.

[Last modified August 11, 2005, 12:31:04]


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